Written by Dylan Callaghan
Samuel Baum had never done research for any of his writing prior to a play he penned in ’07 called The Engagement Party. The Harvard-schooled playwright and creator of Fox’s new series Lie to Me -- which stars Tim Roth in his first series turn on the small screen -- was trying to find facts to illuminate the cost of lying versus telling the truth. What he found was the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, a preeminent deception expert that has refined the science of lie detection. His first foray into research had hit pay dirt both for his work writing stage drama and television.
After completing the play, Baum applied his still-inspired fascination with Ekman’s work to a pilot for Lie to Me -- which is now airing on Fox. He spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Dr. Ekman’s techniques, the emotive core the new show and why, even though most people think they’re good at sniffing out liars, they’re really just plain bad at it.
I read that you spent more than a year with actual deception analysts in preparation for this show?
Yes. The science in the show is based on the most cutting-edge research that’s being used by government security agencies like the TSA and Homeland Security. The pioneer of this field is Dr. Paul Ekman. He is the scientific consultant to Lie to Me.
And this has presumably become kind of a boom industry since 9/11?
Yeah, Dr. Ekman has trained a number of what are called Behavioral Detection Officers, who work for the TSA at airports scanning for these flash expressions called "micro expressions." These are the expressions that leak out -- that we don’t mean to show -- when we’re trying to conceal an emotion. Right now there are Behavioral Detection Officers at airports around the country scanning the crowd for micro expressions, anxiety or fear from someone who potentially could be planning some type of terrorist or criminal act.
Photo: © 2008 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Tim Roth in Lie To Me.
So these micro expressions happen in between the expressions we intend to make?
Exactly. The scientific principle is that, when we try to hide an emotion, we cannot inhibit the signal from being sent to the facial nerve. So, try as we might, we can compress the amount of time an emotion shows for, but it will show. These expressions last about a 1/25th of a second. They’re very fast.
The basic idea that really blew me away when I started reading Dr. Ekman’s research is that you can tell what someone is truly feeling and often thinking just by looking at them.
Which is sort of both a given and astonishing at the same time...
Yeah, the science is both surprising and inevitable in that perfect literary way.
Also, the idea that these expressions are universal is another thing Dr. Ekman has proven, meaning anxiety, sexual attraction and resentment look identical on the face of a suburban housewife in Orange County and a Saudi sheik. These expressions are innate. So this idea that there is this language of the truth, and it’s being spoken all the time right in front of us, is amazing.
Because most of us are not trained pick it up?
Absolutely. When they test people for their ability to spot lies, an overwhelming number of people in a huge sample, score no better than chance.
Most people think, “Oh, I know when I’m being lied to.” But the research bears out they’re actually terrible at detecting lies.
But it’s proven that with training, a person’s accuracy in detecting lies increases?
Absolutely. Dr. Ekman has a training tool to help you detect lies, and he’s proven that in as little as two hours you can dramatically improve your ability to spot them -- they can be seen by anyone in real time if you know what to look for. One of the exciting things about the show is that people will be able to learn the science of how to tell when people are being real with them and when they’re not and bring that to bear in their real life.
So are you aiming to ruin peoples’ personal lives?
Well, there are no liars in Los Angeles, so we should all be good here.
Have you always tended to be a well-researched writer?
Well... the answer is no. I am now, but I did not used to be. Before I created Lie to Me, I was writing a play [The Engagement Party] about a family that had a damaging lie at its center. The play explored the cost of lies versus the cost of the truth... like this show, the play was probing the question of when honesty is not the best policy... I decided while writing the play that I should actually do some research into the science and statistics of lying, and I quickly came upon the work of Dr. Paul Ekman. That play was the last thing I wrote before Lie to Me.
There is nothing more satisfying than when there’s a theme that you’re exploring in a fictional piece, and you discover scientific analysis that confirms the answers that you’re finding in the lives of your characters. Suddenly there is a paradigm that can be the backbone of the territory you’re exploring.
And if you were to strip away all the science, and tell me what, at an emotive level, this show gets to for you, what would that be?
For me, it’s about the things we feel we cannot talk about and therefore lie about either through omission or falsification. Lying in many ways is an antonym of communication... I’m interested in the things we think we can’t speak aloud and what the cost of that concealment is.