Please “Lie to Me”

Have you caught the television show, “Lie to Me”? It is a newer show based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman who has researched the ways we involuntarily respond (movements, facial expressions, eyes, etc.) when lying. If you are bored, try watching your friends and family as you ask them penetrating questions. Last night I was up watching TV because I couldn’t sleep. A couple of actors were involved in a infomercial about an enhancement product. I couldn’t help but laugh when the host (a woman) kept saying “this is great” and other praiseworthy statements while looking down and away and shaking her head. She looked about as comfortable as someone having to undress in public.

But, can you really tell if someone is lying? Ekman has compiled an interesting history of research but the data suggest to me that we aren’t all that good in detecting lies. In fact, we’re probably no better than chance. I read a Washington Post article that talked about how some people become quite good at detecting deception in particular situations (e.g., police with thieves) but that these same people don’t seem to be as good at doing that in other parts of their lives.

Wonder why?

1. We make these decisions based on our gut as well as our observations. And our gut is about as accurate as coin flips. We consider particular data and reject other data, but not in a thoughtful, conscious way.

2. We don’t always want the truth (this has been brought by other reviewers of this show). We can’t handle the whole truth. If we tried, we’d never trust anyone. We would become paranoid.

3. Deception is a practiced activity, and frankly, we’re pretty good at it. Some are better than others. The best get away with it for a long time.

You might wonder if we can spot lying with other technologies and as you know some things can be detected. Lie detectors do detect autonomic responses. Unfortunately, they can’t tell why you had that response. Some computer programs can detect some unique features often found in text written by those lying (has to do with the amount of positive and negatives used).

One more thing about deception. It is my belief that many people want to tell a portion of the truth. And that is what comes out–the portion they want to believe and they want you to believe. They want to confess–just not the truth as it really is. A good interviewer can draw out these “confessions” and then expose the mis-information to reveal the lie.

Be sure your lies will find you out? Well, we know that is true in light of eternity. And maybe we will find us exposed in this life as well.


Filed under Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, deception, Psychology

5 responses to “Please “Lie to Me”

  1. Lou Buses

    1Co 13:7 …love…believes all things… How do we practice this in the midst of a counseling situation. Your gut tells you that the counselee is lying, but there is nothing for certain to show that a falsehood is there. You know that you can verify the facts and confront the counselee, but to do so will build walls and destroy the relationship. What do you do?

    • Well, Scripture also calls us to be “wise as serpents”, right? I’m likely to ask either gentle penetrating questions or attempt to discern over a period of time why this person isn’t being truthful. Now, if the person is court ordered, I’m more likely to be more direct.

      But I do not become the investigator to prove them wrong. Not my job.

  2. kimj

    I love this show, and have been watching it for several weeks. I agree that you can’t always tell, especially with those close to you, when there are lies going on.

    I would say that sometimes those who are lying are not aware that they’re lying & that makes it even harder. Will look up Paul Ekman’s work, thanks.

  3. Amy

    I’ve watched “Lie to Me” for several reasons–1. Kellie Williams is great! I loved her on “The Practice.” 2. There’s a nerdy cute guy (what would a show be without one of those?) 3. It was on after “American Idol” 4. It looked fairly interesting.

    However, the concept of “Lie to Me” seems to be another version of “Criminal Minds” and the always pleasing “Psych” (which is the best show in all the world!) Of course, “Lie to Me” is much more serious than “Psych,” but then again I’m a light-hearted girl.

    I definitely find “Lie to Me” interesting, but I’m not sure how much stock to put in Elkman’s work. I mean, how often can we see a split-second expression unless we slow it down on video. And the characters under scrutiny probably wouldn’t be so willing to dish if we were dealing with real life interrogations. Then again, “Psych” is complete nonsense, so what do I care about what’s believable? 🙂

  4. The question I can’t seem to understand is how did the USA Network end up with such great original shows? 🙂

    I enjoy the show, but I’m a little skeptical of the premise. Some of the best instruments we have at predicting success on the job only explain “at best” 20-40% of someone’s behavior. I find it hard to believe that facial expressions somehow are significantly more telling.

    Although I could be wrong. 🙂

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