Psychopaths Can’t Beat A Polygraph Test

Polygraph examiners test psychopaths all the time.  Psychopaths make up a large segment of the criminal population (including white-collar criminals).  Many of the personality traits of a psychopath lead some people to believe that they can “beat” a polygraph test at will.  Psychopaths are pathological liars, they don’t have any remorse or guilt for their crimes or empathy for their victims, and they don’t accept responsibility for their own actions.  They’re not particularly concerned about the bad things that they do, especially when those bad things bring them money or power.

 How do we know that psychopaths can’t beat a polygraph test?  We do a little scientific research.  One of the handy things about research is that it cuts through theoretical arguments and gets down to the essential basic question which, in this case, is “Can psychopaths pass a polygraph test when they’re lying?”

 The answer to that question is a resounding “No”.  Research scientists have published the results of experiments in journals such as Psychophysiology, The Journal of Applied Psychology, and The Journal of Research In Personality.  In all of these studies, we find that psychopaths and others with antisocial personalities are detected in their lies at the same rate as everybody else.  In fact, some of the physiological reactions of psychopaths are actually stronger than other people when taking a polygraph test.

 So, how do we explain this counterintuitive reality?  Psychopaths may be pathological liars, but they have the same fear of detection and its consequences as anybody else.  The reactivity of our autonomic nervous system is so strong that it simply can’t be overridden, even by somebody with no conscience.

Dr. Rovner is a polygraph examiner with a private practice in Los Angeles, California.

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3 Responses to “Psychopaths Can’t Beat A Polygraph Test”

  1. John De Herrera Says:

    In several studies where psychopaths and non-psychopaths were tested with polygraph, the Result: No significant difference in detectability of psychopaths and non-psychopaths.
    Each group was tested by using questions. It was determined that both groups were lying to the polygrapher, so it was not possible to differentiate
    between psychopaths and non-psychopaths.
    IS IT POSSIBLE THAT USING “VISUAL OR VIDEOTAPED” STIMULI INSTEAD OF QUESTIONS, THAT EACH GROUP WOULD RESPOND DIFFERENTLY?
    John

    • Louis Rovner, Ph.D. Says:

      John,

      The studies to which your refer demonstrated that psychopaths, even though they may be habitual liars with no moral or ethical compass, are unable to beat a polygraph test. (The studies also showed that psychopaths and non-psychopaths who were telling the truth were also detected at the same rate). Overall, psychopathy has no measurable effect on the outcome of polygraph tests. Psychopaths and non-psychopaths might possibly respond differently to visual or videotaped stimuli. However, scientific research always begins with the assumption of the null hypothesis (e.g. there is no difference until we actually see one). So, we must accept the null hypothesis until research is conducted (and replicated) showing that there IS a difference.

      Until the appropriate research is published, there really is no point in speculating about this issue (unless you’re buying the beers).

  2. John De Herrera Says:

    “Psychopaths may be pathological liars, but they have the same fear of detection and its consequences as anybody else”.

    Excellent answer to my question – makes good sense!

    In my question about using “visual scenes (photo or video)” in place of “verbal questions” from the polygrapher, was an attempt to find a way, with sensitive instruments, to detect a psychopath? Would he have no response to a photograph of a mutilated corpse? While a normal person would? If a psychopath consistently fails to show response, perhaps we have a new detection method? jdh

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