(Don’t) Lie to Me

On a friend’s recommendation, my wife and I started watching Lie to Me, the new Fox show starring Tim Roth. Last night we watched through the sixth episode, the latest one. I really like this show.

The premise is that Roth’s character (Cal Lightman) and his colleagues are experts at reading emotional expressions. A smile, a hand gesture, a shrug reveals the truth — or a lie. Lightman’s firm hires itself out to government agencies, corporations, and individuals who need to get to the bottom of something, be it a criminal allegation or doubt of a book’s authenticity. One of the show’s fun gimmicks is to compare the expression of a character with that of a famous person — Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George Bush, O. J. Simpson — to indicate the universality of some expressions.

The show is “based on the real-life scientific discoveries of Paul Ekman,” a psychologist who studies emotional responses. The show also has obvious moral implications: it shows that lying in a misguided attempt to gain values pits one against reality and causes internal conflicts (a lesson I also learned the hard way when I was young and dumb).

The show’s big challenge is that its actors must convincingly mimic expressions of deception and of truth. This is sometimes done awkwardly or too obviously. It also points to a limitation of the psychology: if actors can mimic these expressions, can’t real liars do it, too, at least sometimes?

Thankfully, Lie to Me does not present emotional detection as some sort of formula or as anything that is obvious. A person’s uncoached, authentic responses can say a lot about the person’s emotional state. But emotions are highly complex, and expressions of it are physical. So is a smooth forehead an indication of an emotion or of Botox? And detecting a lie, for instance, says little about what the person is lying about. Lightman is as much an investigator as he is a psychologist, and reading expressions is only his most obvious and specialized tool for getting to the truth.

One interesting point is that Lightman sometimes lies to his subjects in order to provoke emotional responses, pointing to the legitimate distinction between dishonesty and the broader category of deception. (One need not tell the truth to a criminal wanting to know the location of his would-be victim, for instance.)

So, while Lie to Me presents some interesting paradoxes of deception, its broader theme is the power of honesty.