Tuesday, July 11, 2006

My Experience With the New Lie Detector

Last week I was invited to a very secretive meeting by a software company that wants me "in" on the early stages of a new product: the legal lie detector. Now, they're very careful to never call it a lie detector, and they're very anxious to point out the differences between their product and the polygraph. But what it amounts to is a product which can get around the Employee Polygraph Protection Act.

It's mistakenly believed that the reason Congress passed the act was due to the unreliability of the lie detector. However, the primary reason that many congresspeople objected was that they felt it was an infringement on privacy rights. In my opinion, that is the biggest concern.

This new software is actually something that was developed by another government to combat terrorists. It has been repeatedly shown to be highly accurate. When initially tested, they screened 266 applicants for a job. Of those applicants, 27 scored as "high risk" and 199 scored as "low risk". The 27 were immediately pulled aside and subjected to additional testing using a polygraph machine and other tests. In the end, 89% of them admitted that they had made "material misstatements".

The 199 were hired. After a year, they were retested. A whopping 96% of them showed that there had been no deception or betrayal of the employer during that year of employment.

They wanted me to see a real demo that was applicable to me. So I took the test.

The test I took was structured as a screening tool for applicants for a telemarketing company. It's very convenient: people can be accurately tested over the telephone, with the software gauging the tones of the voice and making a judgement about what the applicant is feeling as they answer the questions. This is not technically detecting truth or lies. Instead, it is detecting emotion combined with other factors which indicate a subject may or may not be lying. It is this particular distinction which is key to the legality of the product.

Initially, they asked me to speak briefly about my day. They had the machine calibrated to my voice very quickly, and we moved onto the questions.

I was asked to relate a difficult customer problem I had encountered. I remembered this incident and re-told it. The second question was about how I solved the problem, and I told them what had been done. I answered a couple more questions. Then came the last question: if I knew another employee was stealing customer information and using it for fraud, would I report it? "Yes, immediately," I replied.

There was yet one more question that they could have asked (but didn't): "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" This is a tough one for me, because although it's a legal question, I believe that when someone has served their time, they should be allowed to continue to live their lives with impunity unless there's overwhelming evidence of recidivism (repeat offenders) in their particular area of crime.

When they analyzed my answers, the evidence came back showing that I was telling the truth. But I also got to see the data, and they explained each piece of it to me.

Being an emotionally charged person, my emotions consistently registered higher than what would be considered "normal". However, the voice fluctuations and rapidness of response indicated that I was telling the truth. My emotions averaged around 104% for each question (100% is average). But for the last question, my percentage shot up to 143%, with the rapidity of my response being the highest out of all the questions. Therefore, the auditor concluded, I was telling the truth but was very emotional about such a scenario. He was right.

Since this is not my particular area of expertise, I would be very interested in seeing what independant analysts thought of this product. However, from what I've seen, it's the wave of the future. And that is exciting from an employer's perspective, but frightening from an employee's perspective.

Applicants will no longer be able to exaggerate their importance in previous jobs. Employees will no longer be able to lie about why they're leaving the company in their exit interviews. There are myriad ways this product will enable the employer to accurately peer into the minds of their employees. But the potential for misuse is apparent. And the question remains, just as it did years ago: What about the individual's right to privacy?

And the other question is, what will my role in this be? I haven't decided yet.


Notsocranky Yankee said...

Sounds very interesting. I wonder how my results would be if I was talking on the phone and my kids were distracting me. Would that skew my results?

Scott said...

Interesting stuff. I can see the applications for the police and whatnot as legit, although I would always worry about being "convicted" by a computer.

I am with you on the privacy concerns!


United We Lay said...

Can employees choose not to do an exit interview? When I left my last job they didn't do one with me because they were afraid fo the answers I might give. I think if they can opt out, we should be able to as well.

Jenn said...

Interesting, If this would rule out potential employees for exageratting their strengths, I think that would rule out just about everyone.

The classic... what's your greatest weakness? "working too much, of course. I am such a great worker, sometimes I forget to take breaks..."

Some Random Girl said... didn't answer your own statement. Have you been convicted of a felony? The charge? Impersonating Twiggy?

I would be really tripped out if an employer wanted to give me a lie detector test. Hello??? Dude, it's a job. I ain't workin' at Fort Knox or the White House and I am not a RSO so why would I need a lie detector test?

Grant said...

I learned in college that a lot of the problem with the lie detector (for commercial applications) was that management didn't understand it's use. When asked what percentage of potential liars they wanted eliminated, management said "all of them" which meant only the rarest few with no fluctuations in heart rate, etc. could make it through the screening process.

~Deb said...

So you can use this device over the phone? Can anyone get their hands on this puppy? (heh) Very interesting though! I would love to try that out just to see how well it works...

So... answer the question... WHICH felony have you done? ;)

Tan Lucy Pez said...

Interesting and spooky at the same time.

I once left a place of employment because the boss was always grabbing my ass. (This was long before women had rights to complain about such things.)I would NOT have wanted to tell a new job why I had left the previous job because I would be afraid that I would be seen as a trouble-maker, which I am not. So I see both good and bad in this technology.

The Lazy Iguana said...

So how is this not a "voice analyizer" as defined by the employee polygraph act? Seems to me that is exactly what it is.

And saying it is analyzing "emotions" is horse poop - it is a lie detector. They can call it anything they like. I can call a pile of dog poop a "rose" and it still stinks the same.

If I were a judge, and a case involving this software were before me, I would ask the company executive to have the machine turned on and calibrated to his voice then ask him "Is this machine a lie detector?" Then watch the "emote-o-tron" needle twitch.

The Lazy Iguana said...

Oh yea one more thing. Take their money while you can!

OldHorsetailSnake said...

Congress will not like this one, either. See, they are always afraid it will be used on them. Ho ho, what would we learn? The mind boggles...

exMI said...

I can see all kinds of abuses with this if it can be used over the phone. Can you imagine telephone interviews for news programs where the reported straps this to his phone before calling the politian???
I see this as interesting technology but a pretty egregious invasion of privacy.

Senor Caiman said...


This is just mad-crazy. I can just look at someone and determine if they have any worth. This machine sounds discriminatory to me.

Your post is a bit long I had to skim it.

Three Score and Ten or more said...

This give me the shudders. I spent a lot of time doing communication research with tools that were essentially lie detectors and, though I found them useful, I was glad to get out of that project.

The thing that stick out to me, though is that this thing is designed to screen telephone
Glory be I thought they were picked for deficient moral compass and bad accents.
(I'm on my fourth try for word verification, I should automatically qualify for telemarketer- regardless of the test)

Badoozie said...

there's a way easier and cheaper way to see if prospective employee's are lying. ask them a question such as "have you ever stolen anything". they will lie and say no. and the obvious answer should be, yes because mostly everyone has stolen something in their lifetime. so what i'm saying, is they will lie about obvious things. so basically, you think of screening questions that are things virtually everyone would have probalby done in their lifetime, and if the person immediatly answers no, then you can be assured they are a liar.

daveawayfromhome said...

Will this device be available for use on management by employees? For instance, when it comes time to do the yearly evaluation/pay "raise", can employees put the Boss on the machine and ask, "have I done a good job this year?", or, "Are all you criticisms of me just a bunch bullshit to allow you to not give me a better pay increase?".

I dont mind telling the truth, as long as it's a two-way street.

Fred said...

Can I test it with my kids? Y'know, a parent can never be too careful. :)