The Truth Behind Lie to Me

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Many fans are in anticipation of the second season of FOX’s hit TV show Lie to Me, which premiers in less than 2 weeks.

While the TV show is loosely based on Dr. Paul Ekman’s work in the field of microexpressions, it must be remembered that Lie to Me is a television drama series where plot lines are fabricated, characters are fictional and the truth is often exaggerated.

How accurate is Lie to Me’s depiction of The Lightman Group? Do people like Ria Torres even exist? Is the science that is depicted in the show accurate?

In this blog we try to answer some of these questions and more.

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The Lightman Group is headed by Dr. Cal Lightman, a “human lie detector” who spent years working for the FBI before he formed his own company. He and his team are hired to assist in cases where they question people’s honesty.  In the show we see Dr. Lightman talk to someone in regular conversation and within a few seconds, be able to tell if they are lying or not.

A misconception one might have from the show is that a company like The Lightman Group actually exists, when in fact, the company that is portrayed on the show does not exist in real life.

While it is true that psychologists can assist corporations and law enforcement groups to determine if someone is being honest, this takes countless hours of research and analysis of video footage.

This is contrary to the false depiction that a psychologist who studies facial expression and nonverbal behavior can know  if someone is lying to them from 2 minutes of conversation. The work these psychologists engage in is often tedious; it involves facial coding, establishing a baseline for the person being observed and comparing their nonverbal and verbal actions.

Although a company like the Lightman Group does not exist in real life, people like Ria Torres do.  Torres, who is a “natural” at detecting deception, is based off of Maureen O’Sullivan’s study called the Wizards Project. Of the 13,000 people that were tested in their deception detection techniques, only 31 were wizards, who were able to tell “whether the person is lying, whether the lie is about an opinion, how someone is feeling or about a theft”. An interesting blog by one truth wizard can be found here.

So how accurate is the science depicted in the show?

While much of the show is “rooted in actual science” much of it is exaggerated and the information should be taken with a grain of salt.

In one of the first episodes, there is a great quote by Dr. Lightman where he says “The body contradicts the words- he’s lying”. What’s important to remember is that if a person’s body, or nonverbal behavior, contradicts the words, or verbal behavior, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re lying. It simply means you need to investigate the situation a little more and try to understand why they were trying to hide something. (See common misconceptions about microexpressions part 1)

There are other parts of the show that are exaggerated for dramatic effect. The show often mentions manipulators, which are nonverbal behaviors. These behaviors are usually those that a person manipulates (e.g. scratching the nose or neck) Many of these behaviors can be a clue to detecting deception if they change from a person’s baseline (what they normally do). This extremely important detail is often left out of the show. Just because a person scratches their nose doesn’t mean they’re automatically lying. It could be a sign of deception, or just a nervous tick.

Everyone has their own “tells”- what they do when they lie, but this differs from person to person. What is important to note is that there is not one signal that tells someone that they are lying- there is no Pinocchio.

16 responses to “The Truth Behind Lie to Me”

  1. White says:

    Oh gosh!! You really must hate this show! Because you’re questioning every little of the show! of course some parts are exaggerated but you CAN NOT question the science!! all those things that you point out like “Just because a person scratches their nose doesn’t mean they’re automatically lying. It could be a sign of deception, or just a nervous tick.” was exactly explained in the show!! Dr. Lightman NEVER judged like that! He always said it’s 70% science, at best ! and sometimes they exaggerate it to just add a little humor to the show, like when Dr.Lightman buys a hot dog from that hot dog vendor in the first season and Dr. Lightman finds out that he was lying about his hands being clean! (Which he first asked the hot dog vendor that does he have pain (or nervous tick, I don’t really remember this part!) in his neck or not, then he judges him! (Just for the humor of the show!
    So stop thrashing the show and the science!

  2. White, you should take a look at what many people were saying about Lie to Me and how it lost much of its science over the course of 3 seasons. We agree that the first season focused much more on the science than the latter two. However, by season 3, Dr. Lightman was similar to a mind reader and there was little or no science explained. Its important to distinguish fact from fiction because people often believe what they see on TV. Take a look at this study: http://www.humintell.com/2010/07/lie-to-me-viewers-impact/

  3. Eric Goulard says:

    Hello white.
    i totally agree with Humintell about the Lie-To-Me TV-show.
    It’s just a fiction and it must be considered in this way only.

    As a consultant and trainer in communication, you can’t imagine how many people i see who refer to Lie-To-Me. They take this tv-show like a mine of information where everything is correct. They are way away truth.
    Eyes glare, a slight move of a shoulder, or a smile, is not, and will never be a proof of lie. It’s just a clue that you have to investigate to find more about what’s upsetting the person.

    Moreover, in the show, sometimes Dr Lightman tries to establish the “baseline” of the man/woman. (his/her habits of communication).
    In the real life, it is never instant. Unfortunately, everything is too quick and often away of science.
    43 minutes to solve a case, that’s not a lot…

  4. Adrian says:

    @Eric Goulard, most of your post is right except the 43 mins part, the time the case is solved is not similar to the time the episode lasts just to get that straight, in some episodes lightman CLEARLY specifies in a discussion with loker about him spending hours of researching a video and putting them to the trash bin because someone gave him a lot of money, so clearly a case does not last 43 mins >_>

  5. Esther says:

    Wow. Let’s admit genius when we see one. Sure, there might be a few exaggerations or quirks for the sake of humour and entertainment but, this stuff makes a lot of sense. Funny, my friends (make a show that they) can’t stand me coz I’m alwayz studying their eyebrows and stuff but, most of the time, I’m right, there’s usually something they’re trying hard to leave unspoken. And, I didn’t get to study micro expressions or stuff, just watched ‘Lie to me’ really attentively.
    And, Eric, lay off the steam a lil. People are often fanatics about things they believe in. It doesn’t make the stuff untrue. You might, maybe, correct a few exaggerations and stuff.

  6. arocain says:

    Its wierd how a show that is started everytime by saying this is fictional, can be taken any other way. The best shows out there are based in fact alot but cannot be taken any other way than simple entertainment. Love the show but don’t trust that actors are real. That is an oxymoron. Real actor? haha. Anyway, I love the show and like to be entertained. God bless

  7. Dr. Burton says:

    Just because someone discerns what is factual about a show doesn’t mean they are “trashing” the show.

    Why is it so many people who write stuff on the internet lack even the most rudimentary sense of grammar, spelling, style, etc. And everyone wants to argue and degrade everything. On the one hand, it makes me feel like the only adult in a world of quarreling children, on the other, it makes me want to dole out spankings.

    This show is the BomB!

  8. red says:

    i agree with humintell, the show season 1, was all about the science, but as with most things in life once the show was established it came less about the science and more about the story lines to keep viewers interested. typical approach it happens with music all the time. A new band emerges and there music is really good. they sell a million copys and make it in the music world. then think well we made it with the first user freindly album now we can do our own thing. good show but its a show not based on exact science but made to look that way. its telly man lol anything goes like the handgun that holds 5 bullets yet in the movies it never needs reloading, fantasy land

  9. John says:

    @Dr. Burton
    Your comment really had nothing to do with the show. Also I’d like to point out that your second comma should have been a semicolon not a comma. This thread is for discussions about Lie-To-Me not about your personal vendetta with grammar and punctuation.

    As far as I’ve been able to research, the science behind this show is accurate. That being said, and repeated again, the science really doesn’t work in the way that the show attests to. For instance, the perfect speed and accuracy at which Dr. Lightman can tell if someone is lying or the manner that he can see through a lie and determine the truth so easily don’t really happen. Dr. Paul Ekman, the man Dr. Lightman is based off of, is a consultant on the show and helps out to add the science behind it. He commented by saying “Lies are uncovered more quickly and with more certainty than it happens in reality. But most of what you see is based on scientific evidence.” Yes the stories portrayed are fictional, but the way that they come about to their conclusions, although maybe more rapidly and with a little more reach, come from science.

    http://www.paulekman.com/

  10. Steve says:

    In regards too…

    “In one of the first episodes, there is a great quote by Dr. Lightman where he says “The body contradicts the words- he’s lying”. What’s important to remember is that if a person’s body, or nonverbal behavior, contradicts the words, or verbal behavior, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re lying. It simply means you need to investigate the situation a little more and try to understand why they were trying to hide something”

    1. Situation based.. that scene in the show was accurate. Now if a question was asked to someone random.. and the results were as so.. chances are it is a lie.
    2. “trying to hide something” when asked a question would be considered a lie and could be explained very specifically in every situation.

    And also…

    “The show often mentions manipulators, which are nonverbal behaviors. These behaviors are usually those that a person manipulates (e.g. scratching the nose or neck) Many of these behaviors can be a clue to detecting deception if they change from a person’s baseline (what they normally do). This extremely important detail is often left out of the show. Just because a person scratches their nose doesn’t mean they’re automatically lying. It could be a sign of deception, or just a nervous tick.”

    1. I will state again, showing a sign of deception in a broad sense explains a lie.
    2. A high percentage of instances, manipulators will show a lie. Manipulators described in the show are minuscule behaviours, which normally will be under 2 seconds. A between example to show a nervous tick would be rubbing of the face, bitting nails, or or staring off in another direction (if the tick comes from direct contact with another person). All these behaviours will last longer then 2 seconds which is more likely of a nervous behaviour (tick)

  11. Michaell says:

    Is there a career, that can learn me about the body lenguage and the micro-expressions?

  12. NAD says:

    @eric goulard
    its not 43 mins to finish a case. Cause if that was the case then medical detective (a show about real crimes) is not real either. The science has been explained in season1 if they explain every single time wouldn’t that be boring just saying. The show is not a documentary. Its just a show with facts.

  13. CigBock says:

    after watching one episode of this show…….i can already tell its greatly exaggerated……nervous ticks would show the same things..

  14. James says:

    I have read all of the comments on this blog and to correct a few comment or opinons I went ahead and I found a critique from Paul Ekman himself of the show Lie to Me and in the pilot when the prisoner who was involved in a bombing kept his mouth shut to avoid being detected but when Lightman mentioned that they searched the wrong church created what Ekman calls a leakage. This is where a micro expression slips out and when Lightman said to the prisoner that the FBI should look elsewhere from what the prisoner disclosed he said “you don’t know what your talking about” the prisoner presented another leakage but this time with a gesture movement of a one sided shoulder shrug that contradicted his words so to whoever said the shoulder shrug was not an indicator was wrong. This was summarized by Ekman himself who also critiqued in favor of most of the shows science used. DOn’t believe me read for yourself from the Ekman Group (which the Lightman Group is depicted from) http://www.paulekman.com/lie-to-me/season-1-critique/season-1-episode-1-pilot/
    Lie to Me is fictitious in story lines but the science used is accurate

  15. James says:

    Oh I forgot to mention that I am a graduate student of forensic psychology and have a BA in Psychology and in forensic psychology there is a definitive use of deception detection which is why I chose to study micro expressions through Ekman training tools. Also there are people like Torres, there was a study done of a few thousand people and deception tests were used and 38 of those people scored in the 95th percentile of deception detection with no prior education or training in the field.

  16. Oleksandr says:

    In my opinion the show is fantastic in just that being a show. And despite many of the flaws it does have many psychological points as well as behavioral science behind it. And BTW watch season 3 once more and with an open mind you will realize that dr.lightman is not playing a know it all psychic, he’s got absolutely no proof or belief in his questions to the suspects… he’s letting them assume that they know what he’s thinking when in reality he’s simply misleading. So for all the books you’ve studied about behavior the best lessons are always learned hands on. So I suggest you to speak to more strangers and in a matter of 5 minutes you will be able to read them of course it takes time and time again but reading books without the application of what you read is like walking to the pond only to stare at the water.

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