Don't Believe the 'Lie to Me' Hype: Even Trained Eyes Have a Hard Time Spotting Untruths

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Science is closing in on humanoids and their seedy necessity to lie about almost everything, but don't worry. We've had tens of thousands of years of practice at it, and until you stick your head inside a machine that plays with the protons in your brain so that it can film the neurons firing in your prefrontal cortex, you can probably get away with it.

Neurological research is showing that lies are so interwoven into our central nervous systems that it's not even an unnatural act. Lies require work in at least five sections of the brain, and to separate them from the truth requires machinations that make rocket science look like 2 + 2. Otherwise, lie and truth are indistinguishable.

"Lying is ubiquitous" in the brain, says Ruben C. Gur, one member of a team at the University of Pennsylvania that is using short films of the brain, called "functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging," to detect lies. If lies "were contained in one section of the brain, it would be worn out at the end of the day."

Hence the fascination, as displayed in the new Fox television series "Lie to Me," of our near mystical belief that we might somehow learn to parse fact from fiction by sight and sense alone. That we, as mere human beings, can tell when we are being told a lie.

"Lie to Me" follows the fictional Dr. Cal Lightman, "the world's leading deception expert," who has the ability to determine who is lying and why through a scary-good reading of body language and facial expression. The show's tagline asserts that "the truth is written all over our faces," promising that people are literally lying to your face and you don't even know it.

The show, which comes across as sort of silly, is based on the entirely serious work of Paul Ekman, the famed psychologist and author, who sold Fox his professional life rights for the series and acts as its consultant. Ekman, 75, has spent more than four decades studying nonverbal communication and its sexy sidekick, truth detection.

From his professorial perch at the University of California at San Francisco, he's written more than a dozen books, including "Telling Lies" and "Emotions Revealed." The American Psychological Association named him as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His firm runs seminars for people -- say, security staffers at airports -- who want to study his "micro-expression expression training tool" system to see who might actually be dangerous.

Here's the kicker: You can't.

No, really. You can't.

"We've been testing people's ability to discern a lie for 15 years now and haven't noticed any real change over that time," he says in a telephone interview. "We've tested about 15,000 people in every profession you can think of -- CIA, judges, lawyers. Less than 1 percent are any good at it. Most people are only at about the level of flipping a coin."

He writes: "Most liars can fool most of the people most of the time."

He says that you might become pretty good at lie detection, with training, but only in your professional life. Even federal investigators who run a crisp interrogation are lousy at picking out lies at home.

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