More specifically, the work plan for the study calls for the National Research Council “to conduct a scientific review of the research on polygraph examinations that pertain to their validity and reliability, in particular for personnel security screening. The review would include what is known about the effect of medications, sleep deprivation, and illnesses on the physiological responses measured. . . .

“The panel would review other techniques that may be adapted to similar purposes, such as research on facial expressions and voice stress analysis, in order to allow for a comparative evaluation of the polygraph and to suggest directions for future research that may include both polygraph and other tests. The panel will not, however, independently review and assess these other techniques nor assess the use of the polygraph in conjunction with other techniques. . . .

“The report would present the panel’s assessments of and recommendations for polygraph examinations for personnel security purposes and the panel’s suggestions for further research.”


Some standard definitions of key terms can be found in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Polygraph Examination Regulations (10 CFR, Part 709.3):

Polygraph means an instrument that (1) Records continuously, visually, permanently, and simultaneously changes in cardiovascular, respiratory, and electrodermal patterns as minimum instrumentation standards; and (2) Is used, or the results of which are used, for the purpose of rendering a diagnostic opinion regarding the honesty or dishonesty of an individual.

Polygraph examination means a process that encompasses all activities that take place between a polygraph examiner and individual during a specific series of interactions, including the pretest interview, the use of the polygraph instrument to collect physiological data from the individual while the polygraph examiner is presenting a series of tests, the test data analysis phase, and the post-test phase.

Polygraph test means that portion of the polygraph examination during which the polygraph instrument collects physiological data based upon the individual’s responses to test questions from the examiner.

Our usage is consistent with these definitions.


There is much debate in the polygraph research literature on the relative validity of control question or comparison question tests vis-à-vis other kinds of tests, particularly guilty knowledge or concealed information tests, which are not based on the same kinds of comparisons. Notwithstanding this scientific issue, all polygraph tests involve comparison of physiological responses to questions that bear directly on the issue being investigated with responses to other questions, however named, that are used for purposes of comparison.


These demonstrations are commonly referred to as stimulation tests or acquaintance tests. They are normally described to the examinee as procedures designed to acquaint the examinee with the equipment and to determine whether the examinee can make the physiological responses used in the test. The examinee is connected to the polygraph equipment and asked to pick a card or select a number within a specified range. He or she is then asked to respond “no” to each of a series of questions of the form, “Was the number 4?” After the series of questions, the examiner, who in some versions of the demonstration has knowledge of the examinee’s choice by a subterfuge such as a stacked deck of cards, reviews the chart with the examinee and shows that the polygraph was able to detect deception when the examinee did lie.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement