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TV Science: Lying

The new Fox TV show “Lie to Me” features Tim Roth as a behavioral scientist whose specialty is detecting people in mid-lie. I’m sure it’s a gift many a stilted lover or loan officer wishes they had, but what is the actual science behind lie-detection and honesty? 

Science-y excerpts from the Discover Magazine Discoblog (all other links in the excerpts go to other Discover Magazine articles):

“[Roth’s character’s] near-perfect skills supposedly come from interpretation of body language and facial expressions that let him in on whether this week’s murder suspect or shifty spouse is spinning a big one.

“Both the main character and his skills are reportedly based on the persona and work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the facial expression expert who advises the [U.S.] Department of Defense on lie detection. Ekman’s method is based on what he calls “microexpressions,” small facial movements that he says present evidence of what you’re really feeling. We don’t necessarily know we’re doing them, so we can’t necessarily control them—say “I am saddened by my wife’s death” but flash a happy or disgusted microexpression, and a detective should take note.

“As DISCOVER reported in 2005, Ekman’s colleague Maureen O’Sullivan found that a tiny group of people can become nearly 100 percent accurate at lie-catching. These mendacity savant, known as “wizards,” can not only recognize every microexpression, but can also read the “whole picture” of the situation—a necessary task, since not every liar shows anything on their faces, meaning that microexpressions aren’t a perfect method.”

“It’s true that, when it comes to lie-detection science, reading behavioral cues is still the best technique we have.”

Editor’s note: They have produced more studies recently that found facial expressions to be more accurate signals of lying than lie-detectors, so using behavioral signals is surprisingly effective. Not sure if it will make engaging television, however.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.