Update September, 2009: Article in the San Francisco Chronicle with more in depth background on why you can ONLY take Lie To Me as gross fiction. As Paul Ekman says in the article, "They take liberties - the show is fiction."
April, 2009: The Fox TV show that is surprisingly popular is based on a lie. Ironically, it is called "Lie To Me."
The primary reason I'm compelled to write this is because the producers use the credibility of communications giant Paul Ekman to promote an untruth - that you can tell whether people are lying. You can't!
I have great respect for Paul Ekman, one of the foremost researchers and experts in facial expression. Heck, I have a signed copy of his book "Unmasking The Face" that I reference in my book "You've Got To Be Believed To Be Heard," and have read and follow his research. I was surprised that he lent his name to the show as the "expert" because he knows you cannot tell when people are lying.
And that's what the show would have us believe. Lightman, the hero and expert who always walks around with his head cocked to one side peering intently into 'suspects' eyes, will say "You're lying" to someone, and of course they immediately crumble. That's fiction. Or Lightman will glance at someone and say who is angry, hostile, repressed, etc. All Hollywood.
In one segment Lightman sees one of his subjects rub his eye with his middle finger, plays it back magnified to his cohorts and says, "There, see the repressed anger." Then there are three quick cuts of Obama, Bill Clinton and John McCain all shown with their middle fingers rubbing their lips or face as if they are all showing the same emotion. Compelling, but inaccurate.
Here is a promo that shows an interpretation as truth, which is specious at best. Crows feet MIGHT mean a full smile - they might also be wrinkles.
The show is well done, highly produced, and is entertainment if you like that sort of thing. But my concern is that people will give a LOT more credence in reading facial expression and body language with a CERTAINTY than is actually the truth.
You can become expert at discernment, and when trained you can tell when someone is nervous or lacks confidence or is 'shifty' etc. Even untrained you'll have a pretty good feeling - but it can very often be wrong. Video feedback is a marvelous tool for learning more about reading ourselves and others - and that's our business of course. And having been in this business and the film making business for 30 years, I've learned something about real behavior, deception and theatrics. But personally, I cannot tell with a certainty a lie or even a half truth. Neither can Paul Ekman. And neither can Lightman - the actor.
I've been meaning for weeks to write this post, and I have Tivo the show planning to cut clips to show my points, but it's on tonight (Obama couldn't preempt Fox I just found out) so it's timely now. Watch the show if you haven't, and treat it as the fiction that it is. Unfortunately, I continue to watch it with a stomach churning emotion that too many people will treat this fiction as fact.