Psychologist Paul Ekman is a pioneer in deception research who heads a high profile consulting firm that works with the FBI and other big clients to solve cases. Ekman developed the FACS (Facial Action Coding System) based on facial muscle movements and gestures he calls microexpressions. Sound familiar? If you’ve watched the new hit TV series Lie to Me, it’s not only based on Ekman’s work, he’s a consultant for the show, which lends authenticity to the first-ever show about this type of science. [Not seen it yet? Buy it on Amazon if you’re in America, or via torrents.]
During the recent Association for Psychological Science (APS) convention, Ekman and the show’s head writer Samuel Baum were interviewed in a popular session, and other scientists detailed their research based on his FACS system in separate talks. (It can be used clinically to gauge pain, addiction, and more.)
Lie To Me does detail real empirical science, which I think makes the show more fun to watch. You can learn fascinating things about the universal microexpressions, and gestures called “illustrators” (used when animatedly telling the truth) and “manipulators” (nervous movements associated with lying). But I found it even more interesting that some of the show’s techniques are falsehoods. Ekman admitted the show takes a bit of license, using gestures that are not part of FACS and not signals of lying. For example, scratching an itchy nose is supposed to indicate guilt, but he admits that is not so. I wonder how many people might now suspect their partners are having affairs when all they have are allergies? But he does insist that the show’s writers fact check the real science through him and he has a script veto clause in his contract, so no major flaws get past.
Since it is TV and the medium demands it, he says that the character loosely based on him (Cal Lightman, portrayed superbly by Tim Roth) “solves crimes more quickly and with more certainty than I’ve ever done.” But he still feels the show sends a positive message since Cal is the “best kind of interrogator,” a smart and confident character rather than a swaggering gunslinger. Lightman and his glamorous associates are careful when dealing with their cases, stories that have many twists and hidden turns to navigate.
Which leaves me to wonder, as Ekman himself does: What is the consequence of emotional resonance when you can’t control its source? “Emotions never tell us their trigger,” said one of his acolytes in a different APS talk about FACS, but when you’re watching a well-written, well-acted and slickly produced TV show you can be sure some of those feelings will result from what you’re seeing. The dramatic subjects include terrorist attacks, a building collapse, rapes and murders – disturbing subjects. To detect deception Ekman points out that noticing the absence of emotion in a suspect is as important as an emotion displayed. Is that true of a television viewer as well? What might be the effect of the sprinkles of junk science, what he calls the “CSI effect” after the forensic crime drama that’s often pure fiction but audiences believe are professional techniques? Where might the misleading lead?
As for the real research, he points out that once you’ve learned to spot microexpressions you can’t unlearn it, you’ll always see the signs, and learning to manage that in your personal life is essential. Sometimes, as the show’s stories also demonstrate, it’s better not to let on that you notice something to respect privacy. A lie can be kinder than the truth.