Have you ever cheated on your wife? Stolen money from your employer? Paid off the cable guy for free cable? Seen a double feature on a single movie ticket? Surfed the net for porn?
Beat the polygraph and win big money, lose and be disgraced in front of family, friends, and an entire nation. This is the premise of a hit television show in Colombia, a show which will soon air of FOX TV stations throughout the United States and the world. The format of "Nothing But the Truth" is as simple as it is cruel, writes Joshua Goodman, in his article for the AP. "If the participants truthfully answer 21 increasingly invasive questions, they walk away with $50,000. Tell a lie, though, and the lie detector test they took backstage betrays them before a studio audience packed with unsuspecting friends and loved ones."
The concept for the show was developed by Los Angeles-based producer Howard Schultz, who also sold a pilot to the Fox network that is expected to air in a few months. The show is reaping top ratings in Colombia and FOX is betting on a similar ratings bonanza here in the states.
The show has also been a bonanza for private polygraph companies who have seen their phones ringing off the hook. " I went from receiving five inquires a week to ten a day," Juan Villota, owner of True Test, told Goodman. "Pooling together money from all the polygraph examiners in Colombia could never buy you that kind of publicity."
So what's wrong with increasing the market share for polygraph companies? The answer is plenty.
Polygraph tests, which use a blood-pressure cuff and electrodes to measure changes in a person's stress level when asked sensitive questions, do not accurately detect truth or deception. An exhaustive 2003 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded that the tests have too many false results to be relied upon as job-screening tools.
To its credit, and against the financial interest of some of its members, the American Polygraph Association, a trade group based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tried unsuccessfully to get the Colombian Network Caracol to pull the program, fearing it could reinforce old stereotypes of the polygraph as a pseudoscientific truth machine. "It's the sort of abuse we've been trying to stamp out for years," said Donald Krapohl, president of the trade group, which urges examiners to abide by a strict ethical code that rejects the kind of intrusive questioning viewers see on the show.
For the readers of this blog, there are other issues. Polygraphs are also often used to induce false confessions. When suspects are told that they failed lie detector tests ("this machine does not lie"), they often become desperate and hopeless or begin to doubt their own memories and are easily manipulated into falsely confessing. The show could reinforce the belief that polygraphs are infallible in the minds of the unsuspecting and innocent suspect and thus make it easier to use the results to coerce a false confession. (One can even imagine police officers telling suspects -- "now you've seen how this works on t.v. right...no show is going to pay out $50,000 to a contestant based on a machine that does
Stay tuned for upcoming previews of this show on FOX TV on an affiliate near you. It'll be interesting to see if the American Polygraph Association tries to persuade FOX affiliates from airing the show or if prosecutors, police officers, defenders, and others inour criminal justice system stand up to voice their objections to the show.