The Truth (and Lies) About Fox’s “Lie to Me”

January 22, 2009 04:14 PM
by Denis Cummings
The new Fox series “Lie to Me,” is based on the science of Dr. Paul Ekman, who determined that facial expressions for emotions are universal and virtually impossible to conceal.

“Microexpressions” Reveal True Emotions

“Lie to Me” is a weekly Fox drama starring Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman, a scientist who can determine with near certainty whether a person is lying, based on his or her facial expression. Lightman’s character is loosely based on Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneering psychologist in the study of human emotions and facial expressions.

Ekman has established that the face has 43 distinct muscular movements that are nearly impossible for the average person to control. The face can form about 3,000 meaningful expressions, including what Ekman has determined are the seven basic human emotions: sadness, surprise, anger, contempt, disgust, fear and happiness.
He has catalogued these movements and published a guide on how to read and interpret them. There are small visual clues, called “microexpressions,” that expose people’s true emotions and reveal whether they are lying. “When people try to hide their emotions,” Discover magazine reports, “their expressions may flash for one-fifteenth to one-twentieth of a second—just long enough for others to see them.”

Ekman has trained FBI and TSA agents, helping them interrogate suspects and identify possible terrorists at airports. He has served as a consultant for Pixar in creating lifelike animated characters, worked with the Dalai Lama to help humans better understand themselves, and is now working closely with the producers of “Lie to Me” to ensure that the show remains as accurate as possible.

The show, which debuted Wednesday, does exaggerate some aspects of Ekman’s work, so he has a blog on Fox’s Web site to point out factual discrepancies and elaborate on the science used in the show.

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Background: The work of Paul Ekman

Ekman hypothesized in the 1960s that facial expressions of emotion are universal and not determined by culture. Charles Darwin had the same theory in the 1870s, but the prevailing opinion was that facial expressions were influenced by society.

Ekman began his research by showing pictures of faces to people in the U.S., Japan, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, finding that they all interpreted the expressions the same way. He then traveled to the remote jungles of Papua, New Guinea, and found that the tribesmen—who had never been exposed to Western culture—understood each facial expression.
Along with colleague Wallace Friesen, he studied the anatomy of the face, learning that it has 43 distinct muscular movements, called “action units,” that could form tens of thousands of expressions. “There are three hundred combinations of two muscles,” Ekman told Malcolm Gladwell. “If you add in a third, you get over four thousand. We took it up to five muscles, which is over ten thousand visible facial configurations.”

They identified about 3,000 meaningful expressions and created the Facial Action Coding System, which explains how to interpret facial expressions. FACS, which was updated in 2002, has served as the basis for Ekman’s training. Ekman also worked on the Diogenes Project, in which he and psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan tried to find people who could naturally identify “microexpressions” without training. He found that just one percent of the population can do so, and psychiatrists were no more able than college freshman to identify such expressions.

Reference: Ekman’s official Web site


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