Historical Notes on the Modern Polygraph
In the course of the committee’s work, we reviewed some material on the origin and history of polygraph testing. Some of this material is presented here because it provides interesting context and shows that several themes in the polygraph debate have very long histories: criticism by scientists of the scientific basis of polygraph testing, the development in the popular culture of a mystique of infallibility for polygraph lie detection, the use of the polygraph for security screening despite scientific criticism, policy debates leading to decisions to end polygraph security screening programs, and debates over openness in polygraph research. In addition, this material provides context for the legal history of polygraph admissibility in courts and shows the link between early polygraph research and the work of the National Research Council. We include it as part of a complete record.
The polygraph literature variously attributes the origins of the modern polygraph machine to Benussi (1914) or to Larson, who constructed the prototype of the multi-channeled polygraph in 1921 (see McCormick, 1927; Larson, 1932) and to Keeler (1933). But in many ways we can trace the idea of using psychophysiological recordings—in particular, systolic blood pressure—to measure deception in laboratory and legal settings to William Moulton Marston, largely while he was a graduate student at Harvard University from 1915 to 1921. (Precursors for recording from other channels to detect deception go back even earlier.) Marston’s work has a curious history that is linked to work of the National Research Council.
WILLIAM MOULTON MARSTON, THE NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, AND WONDER WOMAN
William Moulton Marston was over the course of his career a psychologist, a feminist theorist, an inventor, and comic-strip writer. He obtained an A.B. from Harvard in 1915 and then a law degree in 1918 and a Ph.D. in psychology in 1921. He began working on his blood pressure approach to deception in 1915 as a graduate student under the direction of Hugo Munsterberg in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory. According to Marston’s son, it was his mother Elizabeth, Marston’s wife, who suggested to him that “When she got mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb” (Lamb, 2001). Although Elizabeth is not listed as Marston’s collaborator in his early work, Lamb, Matte (1996), and others refer directly and indirectly to Elizabeth’s work on her husband’s deception research. She also appears in a picture taken in his polygraph laboratory in the 1920s (reproduced in Marston, 1938).
After the United States entered World War I, Marston attempted to interest the Committee on Psychology at the National Research Council (which at the time was acting as the Department of Science and Research of the Council of National Defense) in his work and its potential to detect espionage. The committee was chaired at the time by Robert M. Yerkes, who had written on the uses of psychological methods for the detection of crime. Most accounts of Marston’s work at the time claim that he actually worked at the National Research Council (NRC), but a review of material in the archives of the council make clear that, despite extended correspondence between Marston and Yerkes, and review by the committee of Marston’s work, the NRC never officially hired Marston nor sponsored his work (see Marston, 1938; Matte, 1996).
Accompanying a letter to Yerkes dated October 9, 1917, Marston submitted a proposal for the next phase of his research on the topic of deception detection. On October 13, the committee voted to set up a subcommittee, under the chairmanship of John F. Shepard, to consider “the value of methods of testing for deception” and to evaluate Marston’s proposal. Two weeks later, following the set-up of apparatus in the Harvard Laboratory, Marston wired Yerkes with the message: “Remarkable results thirty deception tests under iron clad precautions letter following.” This was followed by a letter detailing the work that Marston had carried out with Harold E. Burt and Leonard T. Troland, and the subsequent testing of another 20 cases in Boston Municipal Court. Shepard reported back to the committee on December 14 on Marston’s work, and the committee decided to pursue the use of Marston’s approach further. Shepard’s written report, however, was not quite so positive. He expressed strong skepticism about the use of blood pressure tests, based on flaws in similar
work from the past, and suggested that “galvano-psychic and vaso-motor reactions [would] be more delicate indicators than blood pressure; but the same results would be caused by so many different circumstances, anything demanding equal activity (intellectual or emotional), that it would be practically impossible to divide any individual case.” His report went on to suggest alterations in the experimental protocol to protect against suspected biases. Many of the problems cited are familiar to modern critics of the polygraph test.
At this point, Marston was also completing his law degree at Harvard, and his correspondence with Yerkes focused on seeking employment with the government, first the War Department and then the Department of Justice, in lieu of actual service in the armed forces. Marston appears to have been successful and secured a commission to carry out further work in the Sanitary Corps, where he completed research described initially in an unpublished report dated December 18, 1918, and subsequently published (Marston, 1921). According to Marston (1938), he and his colleagues tested a total of 100 criminal cases in Boston criminal court, and his systolic blood pressure test led to correct determinations in 97 of them (see Lykken, 1991). There are no further references to Marston’s work in the NRC files except for an inquiry in 1935 from J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The NRC response referred Hoover to Marston’s publications (1917, 1920, 1921, 1925, and 1929). Both Marston (1938) and Bunn (1997) refer to his having used his test on spies during this period, but no details are available.
After World War I, Marston pursued an academic career, and he appeared as an expert witness in the now famous 1923 Frye case, in which the defense unsuccessfully attempted to introduce his expert testimony as to the innocence of the defendant on the basis of his systolic blood pressure test. According to Marston (1938), Frye was accused of murder in the District of Columbia and, after first denying all knowledge of the event, confessed and provided police with correct details of the killing. A few days later, Frye recanted the confession, claiming that he admitted to the crime because he had been promised a share of the reward for his own conviction. Marston then gave Frye his deception test in a D.C. jail and found his claim of innocence to be entirely truthful. When Marston was introduced as an expert witness at trial, the presiding judge excluded the evidence on the grounds that the test had been administered in jail 10 days before Frye testified in court and that it was irrelevant to the veracity of his testimony. Frye was convicted of murder (Frye v. United States, 293 F.1013 [D.C. Cir. 1923]). The case was appealed on the ground that the trial judge erroneously excluded Marston’s testimony. On appeal, the circuit court argued that the judge was correct in excluding the evidence:
Just when a scientific principle or discovery crosses the line between the experimental and the demonstrable stages is difficult to define. Somewhere in this twilight zone the evidential force of the principle must be recognized, and while courts will go a long way in admitting expert testimony deduced from a well-organized scientific principle or discovery, the thing from which the deduction is made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.
We think the systolic blood pressure deception test has not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities as would justify the courts in admitting expert testimony deduced from the discovery, development, and experiments thus far made.
While Marston’s (1938) account of his proffered testimony in the Frye case suggests that the circumstances of the case and the original ruling were somewhat different than what this opinion suggests, the Frye test standard stood as the dominant rule regarding the admissibility of scientific expert testimony for the next 70 years. While most courts refused to admit testimony about polygraph evidence over the years, often with reference to Frye, some state and local courts did allow it, and Marston (1938) describes one such case in which he testified in an Indianapolis City Court, the year following Frye. In 1993, the Supreme Court’s Daubert ruling altered the approach to admissibility in the federal courts in significant ways, and the admissibility of polygraph evidence is once again in dispute (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 ); see Chapter 5.
After the war, Marston moved for 10 years from one academic post to another, including stints at American University, Columbia University, New York University, and Tufts University. It was during this period that Marston developed his theory of emotions, borrowing from related literature, and developed his own personality test to measure four important personality factors. The factors he chose were called dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance, from which the DISC theory takes its name. In 1926, Marston published his findings in a book entitled The Emotions of Normal People, which included a brief description of the personality test he had developed. Then, in 1929, he left academia and traveled to Universal Studios in California, where he spent a year as director of public services.
In the 1930s, Marston continued to popularize his approach to testing deception in such outlets as Esquire, Family Circle, and Look magazines. His favorite test subjects were sorority members: He would attend their clandestine initiation parties, at which the young women would tie one
another up and sometimes wrestle. Using his deception test, Marston monitored their systolic blood pressure while they watched the hazing rites. Sorority girls were also the subject of a few of Larson’s early case studies of deception (Matte, 1996).
Marston also was featured in a razor blade advertisement that appeared in several popular magazines including the Saturday Evening Post and Life. The ad shows Marston analyzing a polygraph tracing while a man is shaving and includes the following text (Saturday Evening Post, October 8, 1938):
Strapped to Lie Detectors, the same scientific instruments used by Gmen and police officers throughout the country, hundreds of men take part in an astounding series of tests that blast false claims and reveal the naked truth about razor blades. These men, shaving under the piercing eye of Dr. William Moulton Marston, eminent psychologist and originator of the famous Lie Detector test, come from all walks of life, represent all types of beards and every kind of shaving problem. Knowing that the Lie Detector tells all . . . these men shave one side of the face with a Gillette Blade, the other side with substitute brands.
In 1940, when he was serving as an educational consultant for Detective Comics, Inc. (now known as DC Comics), Marston asked why there was not a female hero. Max Gaines, then head of DC Comics, was intrigued by the concept and told Marston that he could create a female comic book hero—a “Wonder Woman”—which he did, using a pen name that combined his middle name with Gaines’s: Charles Moulton.
Wonder Woman first appeared in a nine-page center spread in the December-January 1941 issue of All Star Comics. Then, in January 1942, she debuted in Sensation Comics number one, with a full version of her origin and her first adventure, armed with her bulletproof bracelets, magic lasso, and her Amazonian training. For our purposes, Wonder Woman’s magic lasso is her most notable possession and a link to the original and modern myth of the invincibility of the polygraph:
The magic lasso was supposedly forged from the Magic Girdle of Aphrodite, which Wonder Woman’s mother was bequeathed by the Goddess. Hephastateus borrowed the belt, removed links from it, and that is where the magic lasso came from. It was unbreakable, infinitely stretchable, and could make all who are encircled in it tell the truth (http://www.hastur.com/WonderWoman/marston.html).
In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, Marston said:
Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The
obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
William Moulton Marston died in 1947, but Wonder Woman and the legend of his work at the National Research Council creating the polygraph live on.
SOME OTHER HISTORICAL NOTES ON THE POLYGRAPH
Some writers have attributed the origins of the modern polygraph to John August Larson or Leonarde Keeler, rather than to Marston, because of their development of actual prototypes of multichannel polygraph machines. Alder (1998) provides an informative history of their competing claims and interactions. According to his account, Larson chose an “open science” strategy for pursuing his polygraph research and publishing in scientific journals. Throughout his career, he publicly expressed doubts about the suitability of polygraph tests as evidence in the courts. Keeler, by contrast, patented the hardware for his polygraph machine, controlled who could buy the machines, and marketed his approach to business and government; he did not systematically subject it to peer review. He actively sought to have polygraph evidence, using his machine and with himself as the expert examiner-witness, admitted into testimony in criminal proceedings. Larson worked hard to develop standardized approaches to the polygraph interview, and Keeler stressed the role of the polygraph as an interrogation device and advocated enhancing the discretion of the examiner.
Keeler, like Marston, pursued the use of the polygraph for security purposes, cultivating the market for security screening during the 1940s. In particular, Alder (1998:515-516) describes Keeler’s initiation of polygraph testing at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility beginning in 1946:
There he interrogated all 690 employees of the Atomic Energy Commission subcontractor, Carbide and Carbon Chemical Co. These executives, scientists, engineers, skilled and unskilled laborers were asked to submit voluntarily to testing upon hiring, on a routine basis during employment, and upon termination. Only a tiny percentage dared refuse. The tests resulted in the firing of many employees, and the Oak Ridge program came to an end in 1953 amid accusations of coercion.
Alder, K. 1998 To tell the truth: The polygraph exam and the marketing of American expertise. Historical Reflections 24:487-525.
Benussi, V.D. 1914 Die atmungssymptome der lüge. Archiv Fuer Die Gesamte Psychologie 31:244-273. English translation printed in 1975 Polygraph 4(1):52-76.
Bunn, G.C. 1997 The lie detector, Wonder Woman and liberty: The life and works of William Moulton Marston. History of the Human Sciences 10:91-119.
Keeler, L. 1933 Scientific methods for criminal detection with the polygraph. Kansas Bar Association 2:22-31.
Lamb, M. 2001 Who was Wonder Woman 1? Bostonia. [Online] Available: http://www.bu.edu/alumni/bostonia/fall2001/ww/index.html/ [Accessed: April 24, 2002].
Larson, J.A. 1932 Lying and Its Detection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lykken, D.T. 1991 What’s wrong with psychology anyway? Pp. 3-39 in Thinking Clearly About Psychology. Volume 1: Matters of Public Interest, D. Chiccetti and W. Grove, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Marston, W.M. 1917 Systolic blood pressure symptoms of deception. Journal of Experimental Psychology 2:117-163.
1920 Reaction times of deception. Journal of Experimental Psychology 5:72-87.
1921 Psychological possibilities in the deception tests. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 11(4):551-570.
1925 Negative-type reaction times of deception. Psychological Review 32:241-247.
1926 The Emotions of Normal People. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
1929 Bodily symptoms of elementary emotions. Psyche 38:70-86.
1938 The Lie Detector Test. New York: Richard R. Smith.
1943 Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics. The American Scholar (13)1:42.
Matte, J.A. 1996 Forensic Psychophysiology Using the Polygraph. Williamsville, NY: J.A.M. Publications.
McCormick, C.T. 1927 Deception-tests and the law of evidence. California Law Review 15(484):491-492.