Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lie to Me

No, that is not an exhortation for my readers to lie or try to deceive me.

That is the title of a fascinating series about how to detect whether someone is lying. We all would like to discover whether a person is being untruthful with us. It can be in our workplace, school, relationships, business - just about any arena of human social interaction. How can we read the all-important nonverbal communication to detect if we are having the wool pulled over our eyes? The TV programme Lie to Me explores that very subject.

I began watching a few episodes with a sceptical mindset. Would this be just another formulaic police-chasing-crooks story? My scepticism has given way to approval. Now I am hooked.

The basic premise of the series is the work of psychologist, Paul Ekman, who is a world leader on interpreting facial expressions (and non-verbal communication) and its role in detecting deception. From this interesting premise, a remarkable TV series is the result. Though the series presents an "open-and-shut" case every episode, Ekman is more tentative about drawing such firm conclusions from a person's facial expressions, or rather 'micro-expressions'. These are the involuntary facial movements, twitches and tics that we all perform when speaking, thus revealing our true emotions regardless of our verbal communication.

Tim Roth plays the principal character, Dr Cal Lightman, (loosely based on Ekman) the world's foremost expert on nonverbal communication and facial expression recognition. He portrays a psychologist that observes each person, usually suspects in a criminal investigation, for signs that their nonverbal communication - mainly facial expressions - indicate deep-seated emotions which contradict what the suspect has been saying. Roth's portrayal is the highlight of the programme, and his character is the pivot around which the whole series revolves. His character is urbane, witty, and clearly knows his subject inside-out.

Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell us about Human Nature has a brief summary of Ekman's research, which involved investigating whether there are universals of human emotion; facial expressions that convey emotions which are recognised regardless of the culture in which the person was reared. Ekman collected evidence that this indeed was so, proving that basic human emotions of anger, happiness, fear, are recognised across widely disparate cultures.

Lightman's company is hired by law enforcement or federal agencies who have a need to observe suspects and find any particular cues as to whether they are lying, thus shedding light on the case under investigation. Lightman uses applied psychology to determine whether a person is intentionally deceiving investigators, or is telling the truth.

This is not a run-of-the-mill cops versus robbers series. It is attempting to reflect the impact of social psychology research on our everyday lives. We all want to know when we are being lied to; this deception detection behaviour extends into our personal lives, our jobs, workplace, business dealings, friendships, schools - just about every aspect of our working and social life. How can we pick up on the telltale signals that someone is lying to us? Are there unmistakable signs that a person with whom we are dealing is lying? The series is based on the research that suggests there are 'universals'; facial expressions that indicate basic emotions, irrespective of the culture or ethnicity in which a person was raised.

Each episode presents a very definitive case for deception detection - I suspect that it is not so cut-and-dried in the real world. After all, this is Hollywood, where law enforcement agencies apprehend the culprits in the parameters of a one-hour show. However, the merit of Lie to Me is the basis of the series; the research work of social psychology, body language, facial microexpressions, and the application of this knowledge to situations where detecting deception is crucial in determining guilt or innocence.

There are always two parallel cases in each episode; Lightman working with Dr Foster, and the two junior psychologists heading up their own investigation into another case. Lightman occasionally trips up his colleagues, detecting whether or not they are being truthful with him. This inter-office dyanmic makes Lightman seem obsessed with his topic; he is always on bullshit-detection mode. The constant interplay with the other psychologist/investigators in his company can get irritating at times, but it is a device used by the show to demonstrate Lightman's ongoing commitment to his work.

The most fascinating parts of the series are the techniques Lightman employs to expose the deception of the suspects he is interviewing. In one instance, the mother of a child that has been abducted did not display significant facial expressions even when discussing the disappearance of her child. Lightman explains that the lack of forehead movement, and corresponding lines around the eyes, indicated that the mother did not experience any sorrow or emotional anguish while discussing her kidnapped child. Could she be lying? She is a suspect in her daughter’s disappearance. But then, Lightman does something interesting; while the questioners are in the room, he causes a lamp globe to explode.

The occupants of the room, including the mother under interrogation, are startled by the explosion. Lightman notices even in such an instance, there is no movement of the forehead muscles or eye lines on the mother’s face. Lightman sees the reaction of all the other occupants of the room; they register the typical startled or frightened reaction. The mother was also startled by the light-burst, but Lightman observes that she still lacks the involuntary facial muscle movement when confronted with something surprising. Could there be another explanation? Indeed there is; the mother is receiving botox treatment, which impedes facial muscle movement. Hence the reason why her face appears motionless when discussing even emotionally traumatic subjects, like the abduction of her daughter.

It is an entertaining series, with slickly produced episodes featuring intricately fascinating plotlines. Go watch it from now on.

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