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The Science of Lie to Me

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The new Fox series Lie to Me features special investigators who examine body language to determine truth and motive. The protagonist, Dr. Cal Lightman, is quick and brash at pointing out other people’s deceptions with an eerily psychic like quality. Dr. Lightman has actually spent 20 years studying nonverbal communication and facial expressions, turning his research into a government consulting and investigations firm. How accurate is the science behind the fictional Dr. Lightman? Is the truth really programmed into our body language and involuntary facial expressions?

The Lie to Me Web page on the Fox network Web site says the program was inspired by the real life discoveries of Paul Ekman. The Review of General Psychology calls Ekman one of the most eminent scientists of the twentieth century. His work has focused on mapping the meaning of facial expressions. Ekman proved that facial expressions were a universal indicator of emotion by demonstrating that people of a primitive culture could determine mood of individuals from photographs of people from other cultures.  

The question remains, does body language give away your intentions? The short answer is yes, but the average person is probably not capable of expert analysis, and even an expert’s opinion isn’t conclusive. Professors Mark L. Knapp and Judith A. Hall note in their textbook Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction that popular books often misrepresent findings in an attempt to simplify for a general audience. They also note that most people associate "certain cues with certain meanings," and they ascertain that we really can’t simplify it that way, noting there is no real "dictionary" for nonverbal communication. They also discredit "popular books" on the subject in those regards.

One popular book on the subject does attempt a dictionary-like analysis of body language gestures and expressions. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease stands testament to the desire for that secret knowledge, having sold more than twenty million copies worldwide. Interesting is that this book says that hands in the pocket with thumbs sticking out is one sign of social superiority. The standard academic textbook on the subject warns about this specific advice (and others) found in one book (particularly) and other popular books in general.

We know that a significant amount of communication is nonverbal, but the respected experts tell us to be very careful about generalizing and analyzing that information. Perhaps star poker players, acclaimed psychics, and con men have a talent for interpreting and manipulating nonverbal cues, but don’t expect to pick up a "dictionary of gestures" and satisfy the guilt or sincerity of your husband, children, friends, enemies, or employees.  The bottom line is that the science is still evolving, and is very complicated, the nonverbal reality is certainly a realm filled with more uncertainty than vice.

If you enjoy watching Lie to Me, you can see Dr. Paul Ekman's weekly analysis of the show at http://fox.com/blogs/lietome.

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About Kevin Goodman

  • Body Language

    I each non-verbal communication at a university. This is absolutely the most comprehensive book I have ever used. It’s well written in plain everyday language and over all is a great nuts and bolts approach to non-verbal communication.