Conditions That Can Cause a False Positive on a Polygraph Test

By Beverly Bird - Updated January 29, 2018
Truth concept.  Closeup of a polygraph lie detector with text.

Polygraph tests aren’t psychic tools that can tell beyond any possible doubt that someone is lying. They sometimes produce false results. A false positive can occur when someone telling the truth triggers the device to indicate he’s lying, so polygraph results aren’t admissible evidence in all states. Some prohibit them entirely while others will admit the results if all parties to the lawsuit or trial agree.

Tip

Make sure you are relaxed while taking a polygraph test since nerves may lead to false results. Likewise, high blood pressure, drugs and alcohol, pregnancy, extreme fatigue, and exceptionally tight clothing can all contribute to altering the results of a polygraph.

Polygraph Basics

Most polygraphs measure three things: the subject’s sweat, respiration and cardiovascular activities. Some more advanced methods add in other checkpoints, such as motion sensors, but these are mostly to account for any abnormalities in the three primary areas. One thing that isn’t measured is the tone or pitch of your voice.

Blood Pressure Issues

Although blood pressure is monitored during a polygraph, it should not produce a false positive result if you tell the examiner you have a condition before the test begins. You should also disclose if you’re taking medication. If you have high blood pressure, it will be elevated even when you’re asked innocent preliminary questions, such as those concerning your name or address. So while it can affect the test, it probably won’t affect the accuracy because a baseline blood pressure reading is created by these first questions.

A Case of Nerves

If you’re a basket case about taking the polygraph, this condition is going to be present throughout the entire test. All your monitored activities will be higher from the start – not necessarily because you’re lying but because you’re stressed. This also creates a baseline or norm, so if your physical responses ratchet up at certain questions, this could – rightly or wrongly – create a positive result. Your nerves might also cause a false positive if they cause you to wriggle in your seat, breathe deeply to steady yourself or shift your weight in your seat.

Alcohol and Drugs

It’s a myth that illicit drugs or alcohol can help you beat a polygraph test if you’re actually lying, but they can still affect the test, depending on the nature of the medication. The examiner can make allowances for this if you tell him. Otherwise, it could lead to a false positive if he can’t identify the cause of any reactions the medication might cause.

Pregnant Subjects

If you’re pregnant, this shouldn’t skew the test, but you should tell the examiner about your condition if it’s not obvious. Most examiners won’t test you in the first place if you’re carrying a baby, at least not without approval from your doctor.

Other Factors

Other factors that can cause a false positive aren’t medical in nature. If you’re extremely tired – because you’re coming off 24 hours or more without sleep, for example – this can affect test results, either positives or negatives. Avoid tight and restrictive clothing because physical discomfort can alter the results. Don’t squeeze the polygraph appointment in between other must-do activities. If you’re worried that you’re not going to get to your next appointment on time, this could affect the test. Polygraph examinations can take up to six hours or more.

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She specializes in personal finance, divorce and family law, bankruptcy, and estate law, and she writes as the tax expert for The Balance. She is the author of more than 30 novels.

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