Lie detection sans polygraph machine has become a feature in many popular television series, and it gives characters imbued with this ability almost superhuman status. But is it real or not? Can deception be inferred from facial expressions? Well, no and yes.
The chances that most of us are capable of detecting lies simply by observing someone’s facial expressions or body language is minimal. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Lie to Me‘s Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) is based on a real life psychologist who states that roughly 90% of the techniques used in the series are real.
The FOX crime-drama centres around a deception expert (Lightman) and his team who help to uncover the truth for, well, just about everybody – from the FBI to corporations and even individuals who find themselves in some or other predicament from which only the truth can extricate them.
The series itself is based on real life psychologist, Dr. Paul Ekman who has conducted pioneering research in the relation between emotions and their facial expressions. Of Lightman, Dr. Ekman told in an interview with Popular Mechanics that “the science that he does, and the applications, are exactly what I’ve been doing, particularly in the past five years, in applying this with law enforcement and national security.”
If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that at least one television show is more or less real, you’re not alone. But if you’re hoping that you possess the same skill as Ekman or the more fictional Lightman, well, perhaps. Ekman refers to individuals with a natural ability to detect lies as “wizards of deception detection”, as is the case with Lightman’s second in command Ria Torres (Monica Raymund). Sadly, according to Ekman, these wizards number less than one percent.
“Wall-eyed Wayne” on the other hand is not in a FOX series (as far as we know)and may not be more adept at determining whether someone is lying than the average policeman. He is in fact a former colleague of retired police officer and now writer Tim Dees. According to Dees “Wall-eyed Wayne” acquired the name because he “never made eye contact when he was speaking to you. He was forever scanning all around, looking down briefly now and then to see if you had walked away or fallen asleep.”
It is because of that reason that Dees argues against techniques used in series like CBS’s The Mentalist, where ‘mentalist’ Patrick Jane can infer deception by simply observing someone for a few seconds by using tells, like avoiding eye contact. Much like a normal polygraph test, determining deception by observation requires a baseline; that is to say, knowing how the subject acts and reacts to questions in a non-stress environment. This baseline is then compared to those reactions observed when a subject is under stress. According to Dees it’s not any single feature or tell that indicates deception, but a collection of them at the right moments.
Of course, it is important to keep in mind that with fast-paced shows like The Mentalist, lie detection by the book would slow things considerably, and the show may never have made it beyond its first season (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this now).
In everyday life, however, the rest of us can only rely on the old faithful of lie detection to ferret out the truth: the polygraph.