Could the Hero of "Lie to Me" Really Sniff Out Any Lie?

By Melissa Lafsky | January 21, 2009 1:25 pm

lie to me stillLie detection is all the rage on TV these days, with newcomer “The Mentalist” drawing viewers like flies to honey and “The Closer” and “Psych” burning up the Nielsens. And now a new show has joined the mix, called “Lie to Me,” about a man with a near-preternatural ability to tell when someone is lying.

The show stars Tim Roth (forever Mr. Orange) as Dr. Cal Lightman, a behavioral science expert who makes bank as a consultant for clients who want him to catch liars. His near-perfect skills supposedly come from interpretation of body language and facial expressions that let him in on whether this week’s murder suspect or shifty spouse is spinning a big one.

Both the main character and his skills are reportedly based on the persona and work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the facial expression expert who advises the Department of Defense on lie detection. Ekman’s method is based on what he calls “microexpressions,” small facial movements that he says present evidence of what you’re really feeling. We don’t necessarily know we’re doing them, so we can’t necessarily control them—say “I am saddened by my wife’s death” but flash a happy or disgusted microexpression, and a detective should take note.

As DISCOVER reported in 2005, Ekman’s colleague Maureen O’Sullivan found that a tiny group of people can become nearly 100 percent accurate at lie-catching. These mendacity savant, known as “wizards,” can not only recognize every microexpression, but can also read the “whole picture” of the situation—a necessary task, since not every liar shows anything on their faces, meaning that microexpressions aren’t a perfect method. Granted, exceptions and nuance don’t make for the best network TV, so Lightman romps through each episode pointing out blatant facial cues that not even a blind cockatiel could miss.

It’s true that, when it comes to lie-detection science, reading behavioral cues is still the best technique we have. Still, it’s hardly an exact science. But then, what’s a network TV series that doesn’t bend the truth a little?

DISCOVER: The Physiology of . . . Facial Expressions
DISCOVER: The Science of Sniffing Out Liars

Image: Courtesy of FOX

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Crime & Punishment
MORE ABOUT: lying, psychology, TV
  • j

    It also depends on the liar’s subjective belief of whether or not they are lying. Many sociopaths are good at masking lies and have almost no physiological or behavioral response when they lie. It is now widely established that polygraphs are grossly inaccurate and mostly inadmissible in court. Although the reading of microexpressions may be more accurate, if it’s impossible to demonstrate or reproduce in court it’s not a viable piece of evidence. I imagine on the show they are using his abilities to get suspects to confess, which is really the only way this “technique” can be used effectively.

    Don’t even get me started on the fact that most crime shows end the story at a confession. I respect Law and Order more than other shows because it addresses many issues that come up in trial proceedings (some incorrectly, albeit). Shows like CSI and presumably Lie to Me end the story at the solution of the crime, leading the viewer to assume that the perp is convicted and gets what he or she deserves.

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