Microexpressions on CBS’s “The Good Wife”

The science behind reading microexpressions is not something that most people are aware of.  It wasn’t until 2009, when Lie to Me began airing, that more people developed some sort of knowledge or interest in the subject. Since then, the subject of deception detection has appeared in the plot lines of several shows.

On the January 18, 2011 episode of CBS’ The Good Wife, a law firm hires a microexpressions expert (Mr. Medina) in order to assure that they are persuading the jury. While it’s great to see our line of work being recognized in the media, it’s quite disheartening when they make a bit of a mockery of the field, as they do it this episode.

For one, they mockingly refer to the expert they hired as a “jury whisperer,” akin to the “ghost whisperers” that claim an ability to communicate with the supernatural. People who are trained to read micro and subtle expressions are not mind readers. They may be able to detect others’ emotions better than the average person, but a lot more work is involved if they want to figure out what exactly their emotion is tied to.

Here is a clip of a portion of the trial, followed by the “expert” and his analysis: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_good_wife/video/?pid=MkrAKn_eORkqZzxK8E6ZntYVeJl_9nN1&vs=Clips&play=true

Mr. Medina accurately states that there are seven universal emotions. These emotions, called the basic emotions, consist of anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.  It is accurate to say seven basic emotions, because the corresponding facial expression of emotion is portrayed the same way across all people of all cultures, ages, and genders.

Mr. Medina then talks about universal and directed disgust. As we stated earlier, it is difficult to deduce exactly what a person’s emotion is corresponding to just by looking at them. While the writers and actor do a good job in creating a character that sounds like he knows what he is doing, not everything he says is accurate.

In another part of the episode (we were unable to obtain a clip, but you can find this section in the full episode at around 23:00,) Kalinda talks to Mr. Medina as they are observing the jurors during a break. She observes that he is “very selective” about his cases, and that he only picks ones that are easy to predict. When Mr. Medina counters with “nobody complains,” Kalinda retorts that people “want to believe in magic.” While Lie to Me can sometimes make what we do look like psychic readings, the study of facial expressions is really a science. Since The Good Wife is a popular network television show, people who saw this episode may have been led to believe what they wrote into Kalinda’s dialogue. Admittedly, Mr. Medina does counter back, saying that what he does “isn’t magic,” and that “people are as predictable as the tides, as trainable as pets.” Would you agree with Mr. Medina’s statement? Or do you think his work (and our work) involves “magic,” as Kalinda says?

The following clip shows the verdict, which the “expert” predicts incorrectly. Again, how realistic would it be for him to instantly predict the jury’s verdict by looking at them? Furthermore, in both the last clip and the clip before it, there isn’t any real focus on the jurors’ faces. We understand that The Good Wife does not focus on deception detection like Lie to Me, but showing the expressions of some of the jurors would have added a little more drama and realism to the story.

http://www.cbs.com/primetime/the_good_wife/video/?pid=eS8xjBPYmwIDMCkGepa8IdIS2jo689KH&vs=Default&play=true

It’s always refreshing to see the type of work that we do getting some attention. We understand that most shows won’t get everything correct; they are television writers, not scientific journalists.

Since Humintell is comprised of researchers who study this science daily, we are more critical and tend to catch things that others would not, and feel that inaccuracies do need to be pointed out.

However, we do hope that more and more people continue to develop an interest in emotion recognition, so it is always exciting to see the topic in the news or in entertainment.

2 responses to “Microexpressions on CBS’s “The Good Wife””

  1. Russ Conte says:

    A friend pointed out this episode to me, and I watched it online. My comment was that “of course the expert was wrong about the verdict – he was wrong about virtually every clue he read, so the conclusion was obvious.” I honestly considered that that was the point, but I realized that’s probably too subtle to be mainstream.

    I was very happy to see the skills addressed, it’s a definite step forward. I hope other shows continue to build on the science, and come up with great scripts and outstanding acting.

    Russ Conte

  2. I have been a trial consultant for 34 years – so – I didn’t cringe at this one nearly as much as I cringed at the trial consultant on the first season of DAMAGES who had sex with the witness she was preparing on a desk. While wearing a little black dress. Oh – and drinking scotch. At least by the END of the episode of THE GOOD WIFE the biggest nay-saying attorney became somewhat of a believer in what the microexpression trial consultant brought to the process of trying the case. Television shows are NOTORIOUS for horrible portrayals of trial consultants. Just chalk up another one.

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