The TV series is loosely based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman who pioneered the study of emotions and developed the Facial Action Coding System or FACS that codes even the slightest of changes in facial expression.
Although in poplar culture Ekman and the FACS are often associated with the detection of lies through changes in ‘micro expressions’, there is actually no good research to show it can help detect falsehoods.
However, the TV series relies heavily on this premise and suggests that there is more of a scientific basis to lie detection than is actually feasible and that it is possible to detect deception through careful observation of specific behaviours.
This, however, is not very accurate. The authors of the study don’t mince their words:
Lie to Me is based on the premise that highly accurate deception detection is possible based on real-time observation of specific behaviors indicative of lying. The preponderance of research demonstrates that the exact opposite is true.
Lie to Me also suggests that certain people are naturally gifted lie detectors. This is also inconsistent with the preponderance of research. Thus, when looking at the evidence generated across several hundred individual studies, the idea of Lie to Me is highly implausible and almost certainly misleading.
Rather shrewdly, this new study, led by psychologist Timothy Levine, decided to test whether this misleading view of lie detection might actually influence the viewer’s ability to detect lies.
They split participants into three groups, one who watched and episode of Lie to Me, another an episode of Numb3rs – in which crimes are solved by a genius math professor, and a final group who didn’t watch anything.
Afterwards, everyone saw a series of 12 interviews – half of which were honest and half which involved lies – and were asked to rate the truthfulness of the interviewee.
Normally, when we do tasks like this where honesty and deception are present in equal numbers, we tend to over-rate how truthful people are – probably due to the fact that in everyday like most people are being genuine with us, so we have a tendency to assume people are telling the truth – even when we know there’s some falsehood to be found.
In the study, those who had just watched Lie To Me didn’t show this truth-accepting bias, they were more skeptical, but crucially, they were actually worse at distinguishing deception than the others.
They applied their skepticism in a blanket fashion and became less accurate as a result.
In other words, not only does the programme misrepresent the psychology of lie detection, but this has an effect on the psychology of the viewers themselves.
Which, by the way, would make a great plot device for Lie To Me.