Imagine having the ability to know when someone, anyone, is telling a lie.
It would be your own personal superpower, no golden lasso required. And, as it turns out, almost anyone can learn to be a human lie detector.
One of our most popular blogs ever, a review of Pamela Meyer’s eye-opening book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, had several useful tips for recognizing lies. You obviously enjoyed those, which is why we thought you might also like Lie to Me, a crime drama that ran for three seasons, 2009–2012, on FOX.
Unfortunately, Amazon Prime charges $9.99 per season of Lie to Me. It was so worth it.
The series itself is a well-written police procedural show, in the vein of CSI or Law and Order. It’s a crowded genre, but the twist is that the Lightman Group uses body language and other subtle cues to detect lies and liars. That makes for some fascinating crime solving, sure, but is also instructive for anyone interested in learning the dark arts of deception detection.
The series is based on the work of psychologist and deception researcher Paul Ekman, upon whom the main character, Dr. Cal Lightman, is based. (Although the real researcher notes that he’s not gruff, English, or divorced, like Lightman.)
Ekman also served as a scientific advisor to the show, and has even published a critique of each episode based on its depiction of his theories and techniques. Which makes Lie to Me an excellent place to begin watching, reading, and learning about microexpressions and body language.
If you want to learn more about lie detection, there are plenty options. Books, videos, and training courses are widely available. But if you like crime dramas, you won’t find a more engaging place to begin your studies.
The Truth Is Written All Over Our Faces
Both Dr. Ekman and Dr. Lightman (played by Tim Roth) made their names researching microexpressions: Involuntary facial expressions that flash, for 1/25 to 1/15 of a second, across the faces of people trying to hide those emotions.
Human beings express seven universal emotions using the same facial expressions: Disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, contempt, and surprise. Ekman also believes that amusement, embarrassment, anxiety, guilt, pride, relief, contentment, pleasure, and shame are also expressed with almost universal body language.
Although Darwin himself hypothesized such similarities across cultures, later anthropologists considered this unlikely; human societies were simply too different. Then, in the 1990s, Ekman began running studies of people from Japan, Africa, and New Guinea, as well as blind subjects who had never seen a facial expression. The research was conclusive: We all express these ancient emotions in the same ways.
Not only are these expressions of emotion universal, they are so deeply ingrained into our physiology that it is almost impossible for us to hide them. When we try, they surface as microexpressions, and reveal everything. Trained researchers and exceedingly rare “naturals” can spot microexpressions as they happen. The rest of us usually need take video, slow it down, and watch it carefully to spot the inevitable reveal.
If you watch the show carefully, they introduce all the universal microexpressions with clear examples of how they look during an interrogation. You may begin to see them everywhere, just like Dr. Lightman.
The straight woman in the show is Dr. Gillian Foster, played by Kelli Williams, and based on Ekman’s partner in microexpression research, Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan. While Dr. Foster is a highly trained lie detection expert, she is routinely criticized by her coworkers for being a lousy liar. To which she replies, “Normal people consider that to be a good thing.”
Dr. Foster also seems oblivious to her husband’s otherwise obvious mendacity, which frustrates her coworkers. [SPOILER!] He’s not cheating on her, despite the suspicions of every single person in the office. Which illustrates one of the show’s top takeaways, that it’s also important to know why people are lying.
The real Dr. O’Sullivan, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California San Francisco, wasn’t a professional lie detector. She specialized in emotional intelligence, evolutionary psychology, and human mating rituals. Obviously, lie detection is key in all those fields, but she was always a bit bemused by Lie to Me.
“Lie to Me is filled with lies to you.”
This three-part video is packed with gems every would-be deception detection expert will appreciate. For instance, “What microexpressions are, are incomplete or failed attempts to repress emotion. It shows you what people are feeling, but whether that is deception is another issue.”
In the show, they are usually considered signs of deception, as that moves the plot forward. But, as O’Sullivan stresses, “There is no Pinocchio’s nose.” Reality is, as always, a bit messier than a prime-time police drama.
The Truth Wizard
Without training, most people can detect lies about 53% of the time. Which means that your odds of spotting a lie are only just a bit better than guessing.
About one quarter of one percent of the population, however, can spot a liar more than 80% of the time. Ekman and O’Sullivan call them “Truth Wizards.”
In Lie to Me, the character of Rita Torres, played by Monica Raymond, is a Truth Wizard. In the pilot episode, she is working as a TSA agent when she spots Lightman flash a “fear” micro-expression. She takes him aside, questions him, and correctly ascertains that he’s traveling with a suspicious amount of cash. He promptly hires her and she becomes his protégé. Then he spends the next three seasons teaching her (along with you, the viewer) the academic technique and theory of recognizing mendacity.
There are real Truth Wizards out there. Ekman and O’Sullivan ran a twenty-year study that tested more than 20,000 people who considered themselves “natural” lie detectors. Only 50 of them passed the test well enough to earn the title of Truth Wizard.
These naturals have plenty to teach the experts, another subplot that runs throughout Lie to Me. You can learn even more from one of the real Truth Wizards, Renee Ellory, who tracks as 95% accurate. She writes a blog and offers seminars in lie detection. Here’s a sample:
Her advice to “listen to what [suspected liars] are actually saying,” as opposed to what you expect to hear, is simple. But it may reveal more deception than all the microexpressions in the world.
If it’s midafternoon, you’ve probably told a dozen lies today. At least. And, you’ve had just as many told to you. The most mysterious thing about this endless web of deception is that, deep down, you (and everyone else) realized that these were lies. But something made you want to believe.
Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is another instructive meditation on mendacity.
That something is your brain, and it has evolved to keep you believing even the most obvious lies. Why? Because the most important survival strategy for social animals is working together, as a team.
If those jeans make you look fat, you know it. You have a mirror. But that truth is less important than a harmonious household, a productive workday, and a stable society. So, you’ll ask your partner, who will reply that you look fine, and you will cheerfully believe it as you head to work. Thus, the tangled web we weave keeps society running smoothly for another day.
To illustrate the importance of lies in holding civilization together, Lie to Me includes the character of Eli Loker (Brendan Hines), who adheres to the philosophy of Radical Honesty: Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, no matter how awkward and unpleasant that makes life for everyone else.
Eli is attracted to Rita Torres, for example. The first time they meet, he announces that he wants to sleep with her. She takes it in stride; in real life, he’d probably have a sexual harassment lawsuit to deal with. He also feels obligated to hand sensitive information about a case to the SEC, because they asked. It’s the whole truth, after all.
This Radical Honestly makes for many of Lie to Me’s lighter moments, and serves as a parable for anyone eager to unmask all of the liars and lies in their lives.
That said, you may still want to learn more about microexpressions, body language, and the art of deception detection. Not all lies are harmless.
If you’ve got access to this excellent series, it’s a great place to begin.