The ‘Lie To Me’ effect?

Promo image for 'Lie To Me' season two.
Promo image for ‘Lie To Me’ season two.

Having been curious ever since I first heard of it, in the January sales I finally bought myself the complete Lie To Me boxset, which I have just finished. Not that I often buy boxsets merely on a whim, my curiosity had initially led me to watch several disparate episodes on TV, at which point it most certainly had my attention.

The detective style series focuses on the character of Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), a published psychologist who spent years studying the universality of human facial expressions in remote populations, before founding the Lightman Group, a private company of psychologists and deception experts. Like similar series in recent years, the science behind Lie To Me is purported to be genuine, but unlike those such as C.S.I., it has a unique element which helps support this claim.

Where C.S.I. creator Anthony E. Zuiker has stated that “all of the science is accurate and we have real C.S.I.’s on staff that help us write the scripts and make sure everything is executed perfectly“, Lie To Me credits Dr. Paul Ekman as its scientific consultant on microexpressions, the Facial Action Coding system, and the whole pallet of tools used by Lightman and co. More than just one of a crowd however, Ekman has studied human psychology, emotion and body language in places such as Papua New Guinea, co-authored a book on Emotional Awareness with the Dalai Lama, pioneered the science of “deception detection”, and is also the C.E.O. of The Paul Ekman Group.

As I’m sure you’ve spotted, the unique inclusion of Dr. Paul Ekman is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Although C.S.I., along with its host of generic but original characters, contains rather liberal doses of “fudging for dramatic purposes” , it is clear to see that even if only in terms of the scientific psychology and it’s application in Lie To Me, Lightman is Ekman.

Without wishing to pick on C.S.I., I have used it here as a comparison for several reasons, firstly, the fact that of all the recent scientifically inspired detective procedurals, it is easily the most popular, and most recognisable. Mainly however, it is because of what is commonly referred to as the “C.S.I Effect“, the idea that people’s watching of on-screen fictional (and often inaccurate) forensic science will affect their perceptions of real life forensic science. Something reported to have been seen particularly among jury members presiding over actual cases, and even criminals attempting to cover their own forensic tracks. So  if C.S.I. and it’s skewed (for lack of a better word) science can influence members of the public, what about the more closely guarded science of Lie To Me?

Throughout it’s three seasons, the show not only depicts portrayals of microexpressions, facial expressions that are so-called because they are so quick and hard to spot, but those performed by the actors are often punctuated with still frames of those same expressions seen on the faces of politicians and other public figures under similar, often high pressure, situations (think Clinton and O.J.). Whilst these still frames are ostensibly another means to ‘show, not tell’ the emotion of characters, they also underpin the universality of microexpressions, and the science behind reading them. If, as the C.S.I. Effect claims, people take in and believe what they see on-screen, how much is Lie To Me teaching them about body language and deception detection? More importantly however, how much do people believe it is teaching them?

The disclaimer which accompanies every episode.
The disclaimer which accompanies every episode.

Although an interesting question, the consequences of any “Lie To Me Effect” are not likely to be talked about. More than those who disbelieve the C.S.I. Effect, Lie To Me was cancelled after only three seasons, and did not achieve the popularity heights enjoyed by C.S.I. With a smaller, audience, there is less of a chance that audience will contain members who have  be described as “gullible“, and even “incredibly stupid“. Something which also seems to fit the trend that the longevity of a show often (but not always) seems to be inversely proportional to it’s quality, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Each episode begins with a disclaimer, and through the DVD special features (admittedly  not available to a TV audience), Ekman and his team personally explain how, unlike their own, the science seen in the show is not immune to artistic license in order to tell entertaining stories. Despite this however, those same features also show footage of the Ekman group scrutinising the cast and crew interviews in the same way the Lightman Group scrutinise their own.

But if we were to consider an answer, what would become of people who believed themselves to be lie detectors, purely from watching a fictional TV show?

Whether their deductions were articulated or not, regardless of their accuracy, the effect would have far wider reaching consequences than the courtroom, criminal or otherwise. If viewers of C.S.I. really do go to extreme lengths to cover the tracks of their illegal activities, what lengths would they go to in order to cover their  incriminating microexpressions? Lie To Me shows us that through the subconscious nature of these quick as a flash  facial expressions, they cannot be faked in the manner of general expressions, and the only ways to avoid making them are either through taking muscle relaxants such as valium, and the use of botox, or cosmetic surgery.

It is through these factors that comes the main “warning” against trying to incorrectly , and perhaps the biggest difference between Ekman and Lightman. In many ways, Lightman is a true tragic hero. For all his boasting and flamboyance, he has an ability to read faces which he cannot switch off, but an inability to understand the people what he is seeing, leading to his wife leaving him for “someone who doesn’t study my eyebrows when I’m standing in a thong.”

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