Lie to me: How to tell the truth by reading emotions

Lie to Me is an American television series that premiered on the Fox network on January 21, 2009. In the show, Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) and his colleagues in The Lightman Group accept assignments from third parties (commonly local and federal law enforcement), and assist in investigations, reaching the truth through applied psychology: interpreting microexpressions, through the Facial Action Coding System, and body language. (plot source: wikipedia)

crimeWhen we talk about somebody’s motivation for a certain action, we want to know WHY somebody did what he did. WHY did Marie choose to study law instead of studying biology? WHY did the accused person rob the bank?

In criminology we often hear the term motive. “What was the person’s motive to commit the crime?”

Psychology presumes that any willful action is triggered by a certain motive. When it comes to humans, these motives represent needs.

You go to work, because you NEED to make money in order to feed your family. You study law, because you have the feeling that you NEED to fight for justice. A person hurts the other, because he NEEDS to demonstrate his power and superiority. (I’m gonna talk about needs in detail in another post.)

micro expressionsThe interesting part is that these motives, these needs, are all provoked by emotions.

Motives are triggered by emotions.

A person joines a sports team because he FEELS lonely. Somebody hurts the other because he FELT insulted.

Now here is the part where the TV show “lie to me” ties up.

If you could read somebody’s feelings towards a possibly commited crime, you could also tell is he has a possible need and therefore a motive for the action. Emotions are something that a lot of scientists and I believe that nobody can completely suppress. You could also tell if somebody is lying or not. If you ask somebody if he commited a crime, he might not want to show how he feels about this situation and lie. But if he is guilty as charged, he would certainly feel that he is being caught, which he cannot completely suppress.

So the big question is: Can you read emotions?

There are a lot of books, opinions and studies on this subject.

“Lie to me” is based on the findings of american Anthropologist and Psychologist Paul Ekman.

He descovered what he called “micro expressions”. Microexpressions are sets of muscle contractions that only last a fraction of a second and represent a certain emotion.

The combinations of tilted eybrows, a pulled up upper lip and a slightly shaking of the under lip for example are strong indicators for sadness or desparation. The interesting part is that you cannot imitate these expressions wilfully. Therefore they tell the truth about somebody’s feelings.

I really love this show and can highly recommend it. The writers really put a lot of thought into it and Tim Roth really steps up to the plate.

micro expressions

“Lie to me” tells the story of Cal Lightman, a scientist who managed to read these emotions to tell the truth.
If you would like to find out more about micro-expressions, I can recommend Paul Ekman’s book “Telling Lies”

more information about Lie to me on Wikipedia.

Any contributions or criticism? Please feel free to comment!

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  • Hey I really like that show…I never new it was based on Anthropologist and Psychologist Paul Ekman. Thanks for that info.

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