Truth or consequences?
Are you coveting your neighbor’s wife?
Do goofy reality television shows really flip your switch?
For many Americans, the answer to the latter is yes, as studies have shown that people find a certain fascination with their supposed peers on “reality-based” TV programs.
The latest, “The Moment of Truth,” debuted as a mid-season replacement on the Fox network Jan. 23. Viewers made it this season’s highest-rated new series premiere.
The premise is that participants answer 21 increasingly personal questions honestly, as determined by a polygraph, and win up to $500,000.
“With shows like this, things are adapted for TV and entertainment purposes,” said Tony O’Neill, president of the Wisconsin Polygraph Association, which represents about 40 licensed polygraph examiners around the state.
When he’s not on the clock as a Marinette County deputy, O’Neill runs his own business, the Peshtigo-based North East Wisconsin Polygraph Services.
O’Neill said polygraphs are used by law enforcement agencies, the legal community and sometimes in the private sector, although the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 generally prevents employers from using lie detector tests for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment. Federal, state and local governments, however, are excluded, and there are exceptions in the private sector.
O’Neill didn’t watch last week’s debut, but he has followed some of the online banter about the show.
“It seems like there are people who found it entertaining,” he said.
But he draws a line between entertainment and reality.
“It’s a parallel to the CSI thing,” he said. “People see something in a half-hour or hour of TV and think that’s the way things work.
“With this show, my knee-jerk reaction is that this isn’t a true rendition of polygraphs, but, on the other side, press coverage is press coverage, and it gets people talking about polygraphs.”
O’Neill said typical polygraph exams take two or three hours to administer. During the question-and-answer portion, examiners ask point-blank questions that can be answered yes or no.
While a question such as “would you cheat on your wife if you knew you wouldn’t get caught” might fly on the Fox show, it probably wouldn’t in a real-life polygraph examination.
“My question would be ‘did you or did you not cheat on your wife,’” O’Neill said. “I’d get a valid and reliable response. With state of mind questions, you get results that are much more subjective.”
Polygraph exams yield better results when there’s something significant on the line other than the loss of a network’s prize money or a friendship.
“When we demonstrate polygraphs in a class … there’s no real threat involved,” he said. “When I ask a guy if he robbed the bank, there’s a very real threat that he could lose his liberty.”
O’Neill has a full caseload as a Marinette county detective. He is the county’s official polygrapher and often is called in to help neighboring counties that don’t have the equipment. Lie detector tests are a common component of sexual assault cases, particularly when they are mandated by conditions of probation or parole.
While polygraphs have many applications—O’Neill said his business has plenty of work if he wants to travel—they still aren’t admissible in court proceedings.
“Courts have said no to polygraphs, and people always say to me that if it isn’t allowed, it must not be that good,” O’Neill said.
“The courts have taken the position that people are tried by a jury of their peers. The jury is the ultimate true decider, not a polygraph.
“Polygraphs don’t know the emotions or circumstances of the case, so polygraphs can be prejudicial.”