If you had told me that when I signed up for the FBI Citizen’s Academy that I would, on the third night, be sitting in front of the room on a seat pad/cushion that measured my every movement and that an agent would be saying, “Now, squeeze your buttcheeks,” I’d have said you were on crack. And if you’d have said that I would then actually squeeze said buttcheeks and watch on the screen the way the needle of the measuring device jumped and bounced, knowing that an entire class–made up mostly of men–were sitting behind me, also watching said needle jump, I would have called the men in the little white coats to come pick you up, because clearly you had lost your mind.
And I would have been wrong.
When I signed up for this, I hoped for an in-depth look into the FBI and how it works and the hierarchy as well as the way it processes or focuses on different types of cases, and that has not disappointed, at all. What I didn’t expect was to suddenly be polygraphed. But last week, we had one of the FBI’s premiere polygraph experts there to present a detailed explanation of what a polygraph is, what it can and cannot do, and how an agent interprets the results. I was very much looking forward to that section, and was actually pleasantly surprised and kind of excited, I have to admit, when I was asked to be the sole “volunteer” for a demonstration.
When the agent (I didn’t think to ask if I had his permission to use his name, so I’m going to omit it for now) approached me and explained that he needed a volunteer, I grinned and said sure — especially since he reassured me that he wouldn’t ask me anything embarrassing, he wasn’t there to humiliate me. In fact, it was going to be seriously easy: he was going to ask me to write the number “5” on a blank piece of paper. Everyone would know I wrote the number five. Then he would hook me up to the machine, ask me if I wrote the number 1, then 2, then 3, etc., through 10, and I was to say no to everything, and then he’d show the group how to know that I had lied on number five.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Kinda fun, actually. Because about that point, I thought to my self, “Self? you technically lie for a living. You create entire worlds that are completely believable and make it seem like words on a page are real people with real emotions. Surely you can envision the number 6 instead of the number 5, and get that image so strongly and securely in your head, it won’t be a lie any more, it’ll be just as real as the worlds you create.”
Well, it made perfect sense at the time.
I was mentally prepared for the coils that they wrap around your upper and chest (just below your armpits and above your boobs) and waist. I was prepared for the blood pressure styled cuff. I was sort of prepared for the little pincher dealies that they put on your fingertips. What I was not prepared for was the butt pad.
Yes. You read that right. Butt. Pad.
Before he hooked up anything, he tossed this small rectangular seat cushion onto the chair and told us it was a pad to measure any movement in the buttocks. Apparently, some people squeeze their buttcheeks in the hopes of creating stress in their bodies, and then let them out again, to offset the real questions that stress them. In fact, there are dozens of so-called avoidance techniques like this listed online (the majority of which do not work). To determine if someone is attempting something like this, the FBI has portable pads that they put under your rear end that measures even the tiniest of movements. And then I was instructed to sit down on said butt pad. Which I did, very carefully.
I missed the next few minutes of explanation of what we were going to do, including how I was supposed to hold my hands up to the back of my head and hold my hair up so he could put on the coil thingies, because the inside of my head was all: Dear God, if I can never ask another thing in my entire life, please please please do not make me regret those tacos right now. Please. For the love of all that is holy, let there not be any movement whatsover in my nether regions and I will become a nun or, you know, not, whatever works for you. Amen.
Then he made me squeeze my buttcheeks and I died. The end.
Next thing I know, he’s teasing me because I hadn’t followed the pony-tail instructions, and all I can think is, “but that would require moving, and my butt will move and people behind me–the entire class of strangers–might misinterpret that movement…” but I kept my mouth shut and did the ponytail thing while he hooked up the coils and then put my arms down. He hooked up the cuff next, then the fingertip dealies (really, there’s probably a formal name, but they’re just like those clothespin-shaped things they put on you in the hospital to measure your pulse).
There was a lot more explanation next about what a polygraph can and cannot do. I didn’t hear most of it, as I was concentrating very avidly on not moving my buttcheeks. This took waaaaaaay more concentration than you might expect, because apparently, I am a fidgeter. I had no idea how much of a fidgeter I was until all of a sudden, any fidget I had made that damned needle bounce like it was Sly about to enter the ring on his first Rocki movie. Mostly, what I remember was that a polygraph doesn’t measure, but does record the various system responses, like respiration, blood pressure, pulse, buttcheek movement, and even microscopic perspiration in the fingertips. Since my fingertips don’t ever sweat, I couldn’t fathom how that would help, but the buttcheek thing had me worried. Also, a lot of times on TV or in the movies, we hear that a polygraph isn’t admissible in court, but they are, especially those done by the FBI or other big agencies, because the science is there to back them up (and the measurement of any forensic type of evidence is if it is something that is commonly believed by the scientific community to be true and accurate, then it is admissible). Most of the time, defense attorneys let their clients take a test in the hopes that they’ll pass and the charges will be dropped, and then often try to get those results thrown out or they try to disparage them in front of a jury, but they are actually admissible.
Finally, we get to the actual polygraph, wherein he sat behind me. Remember when he said he wasn’t going to humiliate me? First question? “How old are you?”
Um, yeah. That whole humiliation thing went out the window with the buttcheek pad, so I don’t know why I was surprised. I would have glared at him, but that would have required me to turn on said buttcheeks, and so far, I had managed to keep that damned needle still. So I told him my age, and plotted smacking him when the test was over.
Then we started the questions about the numbers. I focused on the paper that I’d written on that he’d stood in front of me and saw a six. Saw it clear as day, remembered it as writing a six, and got into a zone. My breathing stayed even, my pulse was even. The buttcheek thing was still not registering any movement. I had this cold. He got to the question about the five and I said no and we moved on to six and seven, and he stopped there.
He hadn’t let me watch (during the actual test) the polygraph needle display that he’d projected from his computer up onto an overhead screen because he said that if I viewed it, I would be reacting to my reactions, which would throw off all the results. So when I looked up there, knowing I had been completely in the zone, I was stunned to see that the needle for my fingertip respiration had jumped a huge amount on the #5 question. My pulse and respiration had barely risen, and probably on those alone, he might not have been able to pinpoint where I had lied, because while there was a slight rise, it was slow and steady and stayed even across the board.
But my fingertips gave me away.
At least it wasn’t my buttcheeks.
Up until that point, I would have thought I could beat a polygraph, but now, I know beyond a doubt I’d be nailed. I also thought I could tell for certain when someone else is lying, but now? I’m not so sure.
Can you tell a lie? Can you tell when someone is lying to you? Are little white lies okay?
I actually really enjoyed the experience–having just had that small of a taste of being polygraphed gave me an entirely new insight into what that would be like for a book I’m working on. Fascinating, really, and the FBI guys and ladies putting on this program have been phenomenal. I’ve learned tons, already, and two more weeks to go!