A new crime drama plays on the science of deception. But there’s some doubt about whether lies really show up on the face.
Science drives all sorts of TV plot lines these days. In one of the newest shows, the quirky lead character is a human lie detector who uses the science of deception to solve crime. The science and cynicism, written into the series Lie to Me.
When law enforcement is stumped, begrudging officials call in protagonist Dr. Cal Lightman. He finds meaning in the slightest lip curl or raised eyebrow. In this episode, a frustrated bureaucrat has had enough of the offbeat theories. Lightman is unfazed.
Bureaucrat: Now you are just making wild guesses that have no basis in hard evidence. This was no accident. Personally I think what you do is a joke. It’s a freakin’ carnival act. …
Lightman: Oh, yeah, yeah, I get that a lot.
A team of deception experts spend much of their time studying the faces of criminal suspects, trying to interpret the fleeting expressions that play across the face. This is Lie to Me creator Sam Baum.
Baum: Anger, sadness, happiness, contempt. All these emotions, if you are trying to hide it and you are a suburban housewife in Orange County, California, it looks exactly the same as when a Saudi sheik in Saudi Arabia is experiencing that same emotion and tries to hide it.
Lie to Me is based on the work of California psychologist Paul Ekman. He’s also scientific advisor to the show. Just like the TV detective, Ekman has skeptics at his heels and research backing him up.
Ekman: All of neuroscience and most of psychological science has accepted this evidence. You can’t get articles published in journals about it anymore cause it’s so well established.
His TV twin deciphers in an hour what it takes Ekman three weeks to figure out, but he says the show is mostly true to the science of deception.
University of Pennsylvania cultural historian Sharrona Pearl is a skeptic. She studies the ways people use their face to communicate, and she doubts the claim that micro expressions mean the same for all of us.
Pearl: I suppose some of my skepticism is that I do think that some aspects of these expressions probably are culturally specific. I think that we probably do have some specificity in our facial expressions based on where we come from and what our different experiences are.
Ekman: Well we’ve studied them in Japan, in Korea, in the United States, in Israel, in England, there’s no difference.
Dr. Ekman says some facts are universal and the seven facial expressions of emotion apply to everyone. He’s trained thousands of law enforcement and anti-terrorism workers, and says micro expressions can be used to decode lies. But, Professor Pearl worries that even trained people draw on all sorts of other cultural cues – like clothing and accent — when they set out to evaluate the face.
Pearl: What we read in other people has much more to do with ourselves than the people we are looking at. I think if there is any kind of message that we can carry through across time, it’s that, that we see what we are looking for.
With training, Ekman says experts aren’t influenced by their own idiosyncrasies. He offers online lessons and says even beginners can learn to spot lies. But that also includes lies of politeness like whether your jokes are funny, or not.
Ekman: Remember once you’ve learned, you can’t unlearn it. So you are gonna always be seeing concealed emotion and you may not always like what you see.