Correcting Hollywood Science: The Microexpressions of Mike Daisey Edition

This past weekend I spent too many hours on Netflix watching Lie to Me, the Fox television drama that ran from 2009 to 2011. It’s a crime procedural (my favorite genre) about Dr. Cal Lightman, a psychologist who can spot liars by analyzing their body language and super-fast facial ticks, called microexpressions.

On the show, Lightman’s obsession with faces stems from a decades-old film of his mother recorded by her therapist. She had been institutionalized for depression, but on the film, she tells the therapist how good she feels after treatment, and how she longs to see her children. The therapist is convinced, allows her to go home, and she promptly commits suicide. After years of analyzing the footage, Lightman discovers that his mother’s face had shown flashes of agony while she lied about her happiness. He goes on to create a system for coding subtle facial expressions and launches a consulting firm, The Lightman Group, that helps police (and all sorts of other clients) detect when individuals are lying, and why.

It’s one of those shows that sticks with you, or with me, anyway. For the past few days I’ve been surreptitiously scrutinizing the faces of everyone I see—people exchanging small talk at a birthday party, people telling outrageous true stories on stage, my longtime friends, even my fiancé. Could I discover their hidden feelings just by paying closer attention? It’s tricky, of course, when you don’t know if someone is lying. But what about when you do know, like in the sad case of Mike Daisey?

Yesterday I hatched a plan: Learn the basics of the real science behind Lie and Me, then watch a bunch of old Daisey clips on YouTube and root out the signs of his deception.

The real science
Lightman is fictional, but the show borrows heavily from the work of behavioral scientist Paul Ekman, who did discover microexpressions after watching a tape of a suicidal woman (though it wasn’t his mother). He created the Facial Action Coding System in 1978 and now runs a consulting company called The Paul Ekman Group. On his website, he sells several interactive training programs for reading microexpressions. According to Ekman, most people can never completely hide their true emotions:

It doesn’t matter which emotion is denied: anger, fear, disgust, contempt, excitement, enjoyment, sadness or surprise. Each of these emotions generates involuntary changes in facial expressions, voice, posture and gaze… The emotional load—the burden of trying to conceal any sign of the emotion that is churning away—interferes also with the ability to speak coherently and convincingly, so that the words spoken may also betray the lie.

After justifying it as a business expense—what better skill for a journalist, really?—I ponied up $20 for his basic 45-minute course.

And I must say, it was fun. The program showed me clips of neutral faces that would flash for a fraction of a second with a distinct emotion, such as sadness or happiness or disgust. It then asked me to identify which emotion I had seen. On my first test, before any training, I correctly identified the emotion 70 percent of the time. By the end, after lots of tips and practice tests, my score went up to 85 percent. Some of the emotions were easier than others. For instance, I always scored 100 percent on microexpressions showing surprise (raised and curved eyebrows) and contempt (asymmetrical mouth), whereas my accuracy was much more variable for sadness (pouty lip) and anger (wide, glaring eyes).

In Lie to Me, spotting these microexpressions is the easy part—Lightman and his colleagues do it in nearly every scene. What’s difficult is figuring out why somebody is hiding a particular feeling. In one episode, for instance, Lightman realizes that a man who confessed to a murder didn’t do it when the man shows a flash of surprise upon seeing photos of the crime scene. The man was lying to protect the true culprit, his daughter.

But how much can we really trust Hollywood about the science of deception detection? Lie to Me turns out to be more truthful than you might expect from its title. Ekman, not surprisingly, was the show’s scientific consultant and apparently had some influence on the scripts. On his site he writes that although Lightman is far too confident and solves cases much too quickly, the show is about 85 percent accurate. For its third and final season, Ekman blogged about every episode, pointing out which parts were true and which were not so true.

Putting together everything I’ve learned from Ekman, here are some pretty solid signs of liars:

  • People who touch their hand to their forehead and/or look down may be feeling shame or guilt, which can be signs of lying.
  • Contrary to the widely held belief that people look away when lying, liars are actually more likely to look you dead in the eye when spinning their webs.
  • Liars often use “distancing language,” or words that push an idea away. The example used on the show is when Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” That woman. Another example is swapping first-person for third person.
  • Liars will often shake their head no when they’re verbally saying yes, or vice-versa.
  • Liars will sometimes lift one shoulder.

Pushing up Daiseys
So now the test: after going through Ekman’s training, could I find any red flags in Mike Daisey’s demeanor? I turned to YouTube, which holds many hours of footage showing Daisey talking about his visit to a Chinese factory that makes Apple products. These were taped before he was publicly spanked for lying about several aspects of these experiences. I could, why not, try to make something of a couple of choice clips. For example, take a close look, from about 1.45 to 1.55, at Daisey in this interview that aired on C-SPAN last spring. To my eye, it looks like he makes a sadness microexpression right after the word “investigated.” Then, at the end of the sentence, he slowly, unmistakably raises his left shoulder:

Or how about here, between 3.33 and 3.47, in this Bill Maher interview from February. Daisey happens to be lying, and he also happens to be stuttering (“the people, the people that I talked to”… “they, they, have just vicious conditions…that they, they uh, endure”). I watched hours of Daisey footage and, as you might expect from a professional monologist, he’s not the stuttering type.

But in the vast majority of videos, even when he’s describing in detail something that I know was fabricated,  I can see no sign that Daisey is anything but charming, articulate and witty. How does he do it? Intriguingly, Daisey seems to have two of the main characteristics that Ekman has found in good liars. The first is obvious: Daisey is a performer. A big part of his job is learning to alter or suppress his own emotions in order to manipulate those of his audience. The second is, in a way, the converse. “Good liars have an unerring sense of what their victim needs, what the victim wants to believe,” Ekman says. If that’s true, then Daisey fooled us partly because we are quite sympathetic to the idea that American businesses should not exploit Chinese workers. So maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad about being duped. Or about learning science from television.


Check out the previous installment of Correcting Hollywood Science, about The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing