The television show Lie to Me premieres tonight; it’s about an expert at reading human faces (played by the talented actor Tim Roth) who specializes in identifying when people are lying. There’s been a slew of these sorts of shows out in the last couple of years, in which psychological expertise is used to solve crimes that are otherwise unsolvable by traditional methods.
All of these shows are, at best, only loosely based on actual behavioral psychology, and are predictably sensationalized for TV. I’m guessing this one won’t be any different. But, it’s worth noting that Roth’s character is modeled after a quite credible expert in the field, Dr. Paul Ekman, and apparently prior to every weekly episode of the show he’s going to be posting a column on his web site called “Truth About Lie to Me” in which he comments on what happened in the episode. This may not make the show any more firmly factual, but at least it’s a way for viewers to get a glimpse into the science underlying the plot lines. Below is Ekman’s column for this week’s show (airing tonight) followed by a clip from the show. After that is a clip of Paul Ekman himself discussing the science of lie detection.
In the first few minutes of the first episode of Lie To Me the prisoner showed what we call an emblematic slip, the equivalent in gesture of a slip of the tongue. I use the term ‘emblem’ for any gesture that has a precise meaning known to all members of a cultural group – such as the A-OK emblem in the U.S. (Watch out; emblems are specific to each culture. Someone will slug you if make the A-OK emblem in Sicily where it refers to what is considered a perverse sexual practice!)
Typically emblems are made in what I call the ‘presentation position’, very noticeable because they are performed right in front of the person making it and very pronounced, with a beat. Emblematic slips are made outside of the presentation position, and usually they are only a fragment of the full emblem, performed without a beat. That is what the prisoner did, he showed just a fragment of the shrug that means ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t do it’. The person showing the emblematic slip knows what he or she is thinking but doesn’t know it has leaked out. More about emblems in the third issue of my newsletter Reading Between The Lies.
Link to a Wired article about Paul Ekman