Lie To Me – is a lie!

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.

11 comments on “Lie To Me – is a lie!

  1. I’ve taken great interest in appearing more truthful ever since Seth Godin wrote that all “Marketers are Liars.”
    My profession is Sales & Marketing, and I am extremely aware how savvy customers are nowadays. I want to move from snake oil to credibility. Yes, I want to believed as I’m heard, especially because many do their own research before seeing me.
    I’ve also read that lying occurs in 2 forms: commission and omission. Many think lying is exclusively active.
    It is something I’m constantly aware of when putting sales brochures or presentations together. If I leave something out, will listeners I didn’t want to tell them about a product’s drawbacks or shortcomings?
    Incidentally, a user interface person once told me he studied Ekman’s works too. He said “the greatest user interface is the ultimate lie.” It lets the person concentrate exclusively on their work, never having to know how the machine operates. When you step on the gas, you have no need to know about carburetors and fuel injectors.
    Is that a bad thing? We sometimes must keep certain things company confidential until we release to both to our customers and the rest of the world the greatness we’ve been up to. Or an escape murderer asks if we know when our neighbor usually arrives. We may be accused of lying by omission, yet intent matters. Moreover, we can’t cover everything, especially if our alloted time or word count at a conference gets shrunk.

  2. Holy cow Bert…I consider myself intelligent, reasonable, informed and primarily unaffected by media and hype….that said, I really thought there was truth to the premise of this show. I’m glad to hear another side of this “un”reality show! Thanks.

  3. Good point Scott, and many realize it is fiction. My concern is that the majority will think it is fact.
    What I do like is that it elevates the importance of behavior and body language in ALL our communications – and we all have to be more discerning. As Angie says, it makes us learn.

  4. Network TV is like fast food. It’s fine for what it is, but don’t consume it regularly or you run the risk of becoming unhealthy. I enjoy Lie to Me because it is loosely based on Ekman’s Wizard Project, and therefore has a hint of truth. As an educated consumer, I realize that I’m not getting 100% authenticity, but I enjoy the show nonetheless because the premise is fascinating to me.

  5. I watch Lie To Me and saw the video you posted on YouTube.
    You’re right, we can’t tell a person is lying just by studying his facial expressions… But still I think the show is interesting because it makes us learn about these micro-expressions.
    It’s not entirely real, because well it’s a TV show. Everyone who watches Lie To Me should definitely keep that in mind.

  6. It was an interesting show at first but, as noted, this instant “you’re lying,” “he’s cheating” gets old from a reasonable point of view and from the dramatic standpoint. Heck, if it was that foolproof, just program a computer to read all facial expressions in an interview and spit out a judgment.

  7. It’s still showing here, Bert… but not very popular I think. I see the occasional promo for it. Please do the Mehrabian paper and pair it with the George Miller Magic number 7 paper to show how classic papers have been misinterpreted and kept the field of presentation skills suspended in ancient behaviours.

  8. Good to hear from you Les (I’m still planning on that Mehrabian post – soon.) I’ll look at bit torrent – but how is that show doing in Australia. Surprisingly it will be renewed here – but then the U.S. loves Hollywood!

  9. Hi Bert,
    I used the opening scene from the show the day after it premiered in Australia, to show the proliferation of slide-show type presentations in mainstream media. I watched the first four episodes, then gave up on it because I couldn’t stand the instant “You’re lying!” finger pointing, and victim-crumbling. Now my favourite bit torrent downloads are “Big Bang Theory” and “United States of Tara” – highly recommended

  10. Thanks Gary, I’m looking at Lie To Me as I type, and am again aghast at how Hollywood techniques can convince people that this fiction can be truth. And I have the same view of Bill O’Reilly’s expert – she is way off the mark. (He should have us on!)
    People should make the unconscious conscious, but realize there are a lot of variables.

  11. Bert, I am a therapist, retired, who also has a difficult time watching some of the “fact based” TV shows and films. Once I was chatting with a woman who, when she discovered my professiona, hid her face and exclaimed, “Don’t read my mind.” I said, ” can’t read your mind and would not want to if I could.”
    I yell at the TV a lot and shout, “That’s impossible!” until my nwife tells me to be quiet. Bill O’Reilly also has a “Body Language Expert” on his show that reads body language as if it were a book. She can’t really do it that easily.
    As a therapist with decades of experience along with God’s Spirit for discernment I can often listen to a person and come close to understanding their inner ideas, but am often wrong. To think that a detective can see one lifted finger and conclude who is innocent or guilty is more reminiscient of Perry Mason than of real science.