Says a promo: "Dr. Cal Lightman and his team are effectively human polygraph machines, and no truth can be concealed from them." Of course, as human "polygraph" machines that would make their work discredited, pseudoscientific and too unreliable to use in court, but I'm sure that's not what the producers meant by that line.
The lead character is based on the work of behavioral scientist Paul Ekman whose landmark research cataloging and interpreting facial expressions has led him to create a lucrative consulting business teaching lie detection techniques to various official and corporate entities. FOX TV, naturally, has turned Ekman into a crime fighting detective type. Even more of a stretch, the show takes to absurdist extremes a concept from Ekman and Maureen O'Sullivan's work hypothesizing a small number of people are "truth wizards" who are exceptionally accurate at deciphering lies. In fact, the story goes so far as to pretend the lead character, Dr. Cal Lightman, himself enjoys such abilities.
Inarguably, deception detection using "microexpressions" is a big part of how humans identify deception in an interactive environment. But it can never be 100% accurate, or even close. In practice it's more art than science.
To use a Shakespearean analogy from Ekman himself at a recent MIT conference on security and human behavior, Othello’s error was to read Desdemona’s fear correctly but to misunderstand its cause. We may indeed pick up on these cues, but that doesn't mean they will be interpreted correctly.
Reading micro-facial expressions to identify deception is a core method used in the "Reid technique" of police interrogtion, an approach that provides the basis for most police interrogation training in America. But with the possible exception of a handful of "wizards," there's little evidence police are better at detecting deception than the rest of us. According to the (highly recommended) recent book by Richard Leo, Police Interrogations and American Justice (pp. 98-99):
Numerous controlled studies have shown that people are not good intuitive judges of truth and deception, typically performing at no better than chance levels of accuracy. Controlled studies have also shown that even investigators and other supposed experts who routinely evaluate deceptive behavior are highly prone to error. Moreover, Kassin and Fong have shown that police interrogators and others specifically trained in the [Reid technique] not only fail to discriminate accurately between true and false statements much of th time, but also that behavior analysis training actually lowers the ability of police interrogators to discriminate accurately between true and false denials. Further, such training inflates their confidence in their judgments. (citations omitted)Indeed, researcher Aldert Vrij thinks overreliance on Ekman-esque micro-expressions ignores more probative cues to deception and may lead to false accusations. According to this abstract from a recent paper:
deception research has revealed that many verbal cues are more diagnostic cues to deceit than nonverbal cues. Paying attention to nonverbal cues results in being less accurate in truth/lie discrimination, particularly when only visual nonverbal cues are taken into account. Also, paying attention to visual nonverbal cues leads to a stronger lie bias (i.e., indicating that someone is lying). The author recommends a change in police practice and argues that for lie detection purposes it may be better to listen carefully to what suspects say"Lie to Me" premiers on Jan. 14 in FOX's sweet spot right after American Idol, and I'll be watching with interest if also a slightly jaundiced eye. Until then, for those interested in the actual science of deception detection, the always excellent (when the author gets around to posting!) Deception Blog supplied a superb end of the year roundup of deception-related research:
- Part 1: Catching liars
- Part 2: New technologies
- Part 3: Magic
- Part 4: When people lie
- Part 5: Polygraphy
- Part 6: Kids' lies