The truth will out: interrogative polygraphy ("lie detection") with event-related brain potentials

Psychophysiology. 1991 Sep;28(5):531-47. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1991.tb01990.x.


The feasibility of using Event Related Brain Potentials (ERPs) in Interrogative Polygraphy ("Lie Detection") was tested by examining the effectiveness of the Guilty Knowledge Test designed by Farwell and Donchin (1986, 1988). The subject is assigned an arbitrary task requiring discrimination between experimenter-designated targets and other, irrelevant stimuli. A group of diagnostic items ("probes"), which to the unwitting are indistinguishable from the irrelevant items, are embedded among the irrelevant. For subjects who possess "guilty knowledge" these probes are distinct from the irrelevants and are likely to elicit a P300, thus revealing their possessing the special knowledge that allows them to differentiate the probes from the irrelevants. We report two experiments in which this paradigm was tested. In Experiment 1, 20 subjects participated in one of two mock espionage scenarios and were tested for their knowledge of both scenarios. All stimuli consisted of short phrases presented for 300 ms each at an interstimulus interval of 1550 ms. A set of items were designated as "targets" and appeared on 17% of the trials. Probes related to the scenarios also appeared on 17% of the trials. The rest of the items were irrelevants. Subjects responded by pressing one switch following targets, and the other following irrelevants (and, of course, probes). ERPs were recorded from FZ, CZ, and PZ. As predicted, targets elicited large P300s in all subjects. Probes associated with a given scenario elicited a P300 in subjects who participated in that scenario. A bootstrapping method was used to assess the quality of the decision for each subject. The algorithm declared the decision indeterminate in 12.5% of the cases. In all other cases a decision was made. There were no false positives and no false negatives: whenever a determination was made it was accurate. The second experiment was virtually identical to the first, with identical results, except that this time 4 subjects were tested, each of which had a minor brush with the law. Subjects were tested to determine whether they possessed information on their own "crimes." The results were as expected; the Guilty Knowledge Test determined correctly which subject possessed which information. The implications of these data both for the practice of Interrogative Polygraphy and the interpretation of the P300 are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lie Detection*
  • Male