What’s the Big Deal?
People like to criticise Jeremy Kyle and his show. I’m not sure why. It’s easy to moralise from your armchair but I actually think Jeremy Kyle does a lot of good. For my readers in America, the format of The Jeremy Kyle Show is similar to shows like Maury, Jerry Springer etc. but Jeremy spends time interacting with the guests, shouting at them if necessary and provides an aftercare service run by Graham Stanier (a psychotherapist trained by Aaron Beck, the inventor of cognitive therapy).
I think the show probably gets criticised because some of the people on it are vile. But we don’t criticise the news when it reports on criminals, instead we recognise that some aspects of our world aren’t nice. By all means be offended by the guests, but why attack Jeremy himself or his show?
A lot of it centres around people shouting at each other or talking about sex. But so what? Let’s just state it bluntly: people find those things interesting. For the same reason a public place goes quiet when a couple starts arguing, a lot of people are fascinated by other humans displaying anger and affection. We’re social creatures who show aggression and have sex drives...of course we find those things interesting.
A few thousand years ago people used to watch Christians being eaten alive by lions. At least the people on The Jeremy Kyle Show are there by choice. Yes, there are people in the audience grinning and cheering when fights begin, but that’s normal human behaviour. Aspiring to be an argumentative person is probably not great but wanting to watch aggression is, as far as I can tell, no different from watching sporting events or action movies. We like an adrenaline rush. What's the big deal?
Doing Good Work
Jeremy Kyle deals with a lot of heated social issues on his show but he often knows what he’s talking about. Jeremy has had a gambling addiction, suffered cancer, been through divorce, lost parents and raised children. It’s not as though he’s pretending to be a whiter-than-white bastion of purity. He’s a guy who’s experienced life and has insight on these issues. Maybe people ought to listen to him?
Let’s also remember that the show doesn’t just get people together and make them argue. It sends addicts to rehabilitation programs, offers bereavement therapy, couples counselling, DNA tests for uncertain parents, unites estranged families, gives people extensive medical check-ups and does quite a lot of peacekeeping. I’ve seen Jeremy Kyle step in between people swearing blue murder at each other and somehow get them hugging. The man is a social wizard. He and Graham Stanier offer solutions and practical advice for people in difficult times, how can this make them the target of criticism?
And more. Jeremy is watched by millions of people who trust and respect him, and he uses this power for good. Jeremy openly supports transgender rights on his show, he doesn’t bat an eyelid when there’s a gay couple (it's like he sees gay people as equal or something...how about that?), he frequently advocates safe sex, criticises domestic abuse, drug-taking, racism and benefit fraud, as well as putting an emphasis on children during divorce and championing the rights of both parents.
Yeah OK, sometimes the show focuses on confrontation to make exciting TV...but it’s a TV show, isn’t that its function? The fact Jeremy even spends time raising awareness of these other issues is, I think, admirable.
There is, however, one area of controversy which I think needs to be addressed very carefully: the all-important lie detector. And no, I’m not about to suggest the show stop using the lie detector, actually the exact opposite. The lie detector makes for gripping and dramatic television, so if they're going to keep using it, there are a few things they can do to benefit Science.
The Puzzle of Polygraphs
The lie detector or - to give it its technical name - the polygraph, was developed in the 1920s by John Larson and William Marston. William Marston was also the inventor of Wonder Woman and her “lasso of truth” which compels criminals to speak honestly was inspired by his own invention. See, told you I was going somewhere with that picture.
The way polygraphs work is fairly simple. They monitor your blood pressure, pulse rate, breathing frequency and how much you sweat in order to tell if you are experiencing heightened emotions. Supposedly, when the test picks up on physiological changes like this, it’s because the person is being dishonest. And this is where things get sticky.
Jeremy Kyle puts a lot of faith in the polygraph, which he uses on prospective cheaters and thieves. It would be an easy criticism to say polygraphs aren’t trustworthy, but it would be dishonest because nobody actually knows. It’s possible lie detectors are completely bogus sure, but it’s also possible they have a high accuracy.
In 2003 the National Academy of Sciences conducted a review of studies performed on polygraph accuracy and concluded “Overall, the evidence is scanty and scientifically weak. Our conclusions are necessarily based on the far from satisfactory body of evidence on polygraph accuracy.“ This doesn’t mean the polygraph has been debunked. It just means nobody has tested it properly yet. The jury is still out which means we have to reserve judgement and wait to see what the data says.
The problem is that nobody has ever been able to test the polygraph hypothesis. The reason is quite simple. The only way to test a polygraph is to get a sample of people, some of whom lie and some of whom don’t. If the machine can distinguish the liars from the truth-tellers then it works. But in order to test it you’d need people to lie “properly”.
For example, if I tell you I’m doing an experiment with a polygraph and I want you to be one of the liars, you’re not really trying to deceive anyone...you’re actually cooperating with the Scientists running the test. Lying because you’ve been told to as part of an experiment is hardly going to produce a significant emotional response.
The only way to test a lie detector properly is to test it on people who are genuinely trying to conceal something, which is logically impossible because they won’t admit to it afterwards. They want to conceal it! This means polygraph research is a catch-22. But Jeremy Kyle may actually be able to offer some solutions. And no, I’m not being satirical, I’m being deadly serious.
Obvious Criticisms, Let’s Get Them out of the Way
Many spies have successfully passed polygraph tests only to be exposed later through other means. Aldrich Ames famously explained that the trick was to keep calm and stay confident. The polygraph measures heightened emotion so if you act cool as a cucumber it can be fooled. By contrast, if you’re nervous about doing the polygraph (or talking about the accusation makes you stressed) even an innocent person might get falsely measured as a liar.
The obvious question you might also ask is: why would anyone agree to do a lie detector? I personally wouldn’t do one even if I knew I was innocent. I would be so stressed about the machine accidentally reading me incorrectly and making a false accusation that I’d begin stressing about it, which the machine would pick up on.
It is entirely possible, disturbing though it might be, that The Jeremy Kyle Show which otherwise does great work, is potentially condemning innocent people because they put faith in a test which might not deserve it. If The Jeremy Kyle Show happens to read my blog (and I’m going to send it to them) I hope they can accept the following criticism which I think is fair...the lie detector shouldn't be treated as gospel until we have more data about it.
There was an episode I saw recently in which a woman confessed to the polygraph examiner that she had done a lot of things behind her boyfriend’s back. She then answered questions about the relationship and was found to be a liar. But why would she lie if she was prepared to admit all those other things in the first place? Isn’t a more likely explanation that she was feeling so guilty about admitting everything that the test picked up on her heightened emotions?
Another episode I saw featured a man claimed to have been drunk and couldn’t remember if he had sex with someone. The polygraph asked him if he had, he said no, and the test said he was lying. How did that work? Was it because the honest answer was “I don’t know if I did”, so his answer “no” wasn’t honest? Was it that he really did know and he was lying about being drunk? Or did the test somehow know the truth even when the man himself didn’t?
The show does print a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen saying “practitioners claim it is accurate although this is disputed”, but I saw another episode in which a woman was confronting her boyfriend who had apparently been cheating and said “we both know it is impossible to fail this test!” And there is a real problem.
Disclaimers aside, people trust Jeremy Kyle, so when they see him putting such faith in the test, they do so as well. And even if we knew the lie detector was good, claiming it is accurate all the time is going much too far. An expensive pregnancy test can only boast about 98% accuracy. It’s just not possible to be precise when it comes to human biology, particularly the brain.
So yes, I do think the show should perhaps tone down their faith in the machine. But if they continue to use it, I think there's something really interesting they can do with it. They can contribute some intriguing findings to scientific research.
Thing is, doing Science isn't about standing in a lab all day squirting chemicals into test tubes. Anything where you're finding out information about a particular question is doing research. Jeremy finds out how people behave when they get accused of lying, and we can use this.
There have been plenty of episodes where someone has been “found out” to be a liar, they’ve protested it violently, but then after five minutes Jeremy is able to get them to confess. Seriously, the man’s like a horse whisperer.
There have also been episodes where people have protested the “lying” accusation but they’ve appeared on a later installment and admitted the test was right all along. Is this just luck? Jeremy insinuates that it’s actually quite normal. “You know what, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, someone will get in touch with the show and they’ll tell me that you admitted you were lying”.
Jeremy seems to imply that the vast majority of people who protest the lie detector admit to it later on when the cameras are off. Is this possible? Maybe a lot of people really do contact the show and say “yeah ok, I admit it, you caught me out”. If this is true then this would potentially give more credibility to polygraphs. And therefore here is the thesis of my essay:
The Jeremy Kyle Show should start collecting data.
In theory we may have an opportunity to learn something about polygraph accuracy because we have the ideal test subjects – people who are really trying to lie and who protest it when accused...but later admit it.
Consider the sheer size of the data sample. The show has broadcast close to 3,000 episodes since it began in 2005. Every show contains three or four different stories and maybe 20% featuere lie detectors. Many Scientific research groups would kill to get a data set that big. So here’s what Jeremy should do:
For every polygraph test they administer, they should keep a record of what the person’s answer was and whether the polygraph believed them to be lying or innocent. Then, for every “liar”, take a record of how many of them admit it later. This could be fascinating. Granted, a lot of genuine liars will never come forward but there’s no way around that. We could still get useful information from such a study.
Let’s say 70% of accused people admit they were lying. That would mean if the test claims you to be lying, there is a minimum 70% chance we can trust the result. The remaining 30% could be false accusations or people who haven’t admitted it, but imagine being able to say that the polygraph was at least 70% likely to be accurate on liar conclusions.
It still wouldn’t be an actual measurement of “how accurate the polygraph is”, because many liars might get put into the truth category like Aldrich Ames. The polygraph evidently can’t detect all liars but it would tell us how reliable it is when it claims to find one.
OK sure, simply writing down the numbers wouldn't be enough, you'd have to make sure the test was carried out fairly, randomised, have a control group, disregard faulty testings etc. but I think we might be able to learn alot about how accurate the test is, how people respond to the accusation, why they thought they could get away with it and potentially who is more likely to be unmasked.
So there is my challenge to The Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s a genuine proposal. I think they should carry on doing the lie detector and carry on recording how people respond, but then keep track of what percentage later admit to having lied.
So, dear Jeremy Kyle Show etc. I think your show does good work. But you should do two things. First, make more of an effort to explain that the polygraph is an unknown quantity (that might even tempt more liars to try it, giving us even more data). And second, start collecting information, get some statisticians to look it over and see what you can find after a few years’ worth of research. Who knows, maybe the show could end up benefiting Science as much as it has benefited the many guests who have appeared on it.
Casual Jeremy: Mirror
Wonder Woman: squarespace
Serious Face: quickmeme
Debonair Jeremy: Mirror
I love science, let me tell you why.