Lie to Me: A Crime Drama Based on Psychological Findings

 Facial expressions, psychology

In a recurring SERMO community column, an Italian psychiatrist shares insights about medicine in cinema in a weekly series called MediCine. His latest column focuses on the television show Lie to Me, and its factual basis in real-life psychologist and professor Paul Ekman.

Today we talk about a crime drama television series (Lie to Me) and not about cinema. It’s Dr. Lightman after all, how could I forget to mention him here?! Also because the show is inspired by the (real) work of Paul Ekman, the world’s foremost expert on facial expressions and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Dr. Ekman has served as an advisor to police departments and anti-terrorism groups (including the Transportation Security Administration) and is the author of 15 books, including Telling Lies and Emotions Revealed.

Lie to Me originally ran on the Fox network from January 21, 2009 to January 31, 2011. 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.

Paul Ekman is an American psychologist who is a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. He has created an “atlas of emotions” with more than ten thousand facial expressions, and has gained a reputation as “the best human lie detector in the world”.

He served as a scientific adviser for the series; he read and edited the scripts and sent video clip-notes of facial expressions for the actors to imitate. While Ekman has written 15 books, the series Lie to Me has more effectively brought Ekman’s research into people’s homes. Lie to Me has aired in more than 60 countries!

Ekman was named one of the top Time 100 most influential people in the May 11, 2009 edition of Time magazine. He was also ranked 59th out of the 100 most cited psychologists of the twentieth century!

Through a series of studies, Ekman found a high agreement across members of diverse Western and Eastern literate cultures on selecting emotional labels that fit facial expressions. Expressions he found to be universal included those indicating wrath, grossness, scaredness, joy, loneliness, and shock. Findings on contempt were less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence that this emotion and its expression are universally recognized. Working with his long-time friend Wallace V. Friesen, Ekman demonstrated that the findings extended to preliterate Fore tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, whose members could not have learned the meaning of expressions from exposure to media depictions of emotion. Ekman and Friesen then demonstrated that certain emotions were exhibited with very specific display rules, culture-specific prescriptions about who can show which emotions to whom and when. These display rules could explain how cultural differences may conceal the universal effect of expression.

This inevitably brings to the Jungian concept of archetype.

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