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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

8 thoughts on “Correcting Hollywood Science: The Microexpressions of Mike Daisey Edition

  1. What a fun exercise!

    Another potential twist on the Daisey story is that, in practicing his story, the teller remembers the story more than the actual experience. A psych prof describes the phenomenon in this Psychology Today piece:

    “We have one person (Mr. Daisey) who has spent two years developing and telling this story over and over again, and one (his translator) who hasn’t thought about it at all. So who should we trust? Mike Daisey has been rehearsing and strengthening his memories for years; he’s basically been studying the story. The intuitive answer is he should remember it more accurately. This intuitive answer is wrong.”

  2. Sigh.

    There are actually shades of grey in the world. There are things besides “truth” and “lie.” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was not a lie – it wasn’t true either. But it exposed a truth and it changed society.

    Mike Daisey tells a story. It is not factual, it is not lies – it’s a story.

    And it is changing society.

    I think the folks at Apple do great work and I have long used their products. And I suspect I will continue to. But I also think Mike Daisey does great work. And I think he’s highlighted something about our society that we need to examine and change. He used the power of story to do so.

    What I don’t like, and have a huge issue with, is the field of objective, fact-focused journalism which has had a very poor record over my lifetime of communicating the issues and contributing to society. The levels of ignorance about current events in the US population are staggering.

  3. In some situations, yes. But when it comes to anything beyond trivial human interactions, not really.

    People make decisions based on incomplete information and coloured by their own perceptions and experience. Combine multiple people together, and each person can “tell the truth” and yet describe a common interaction differently. And as the Psychology Today article points out, our memory is more malleable than we might think.

    Objective journalism has a role in communicating current events. It is not the sole way to do this however. And I think for too long we’ve given it far too much weight.

    If you look at American views on the war in Iraq, evolution, how birth control works and a host of other objectively measurable things, Americans are highly misinformed. I view this as a failure of the primacy of objective journalism in centrist and liberal schools of thought.

    Fox News tells stories. They are rather depressing stories in my opinion, but they are well crafted and accessible to people who listen to them. Stories appeal to all of us and they explain our world. By not drawing on them to advance the liberal/progressive/reformist view of the world, we cede an important human communication tool to the far right which has embraced it with gusto for decades.

    I think that’s a mistake. I think we need more Mike Daisey’s – and we need them on TV, radio and the net. If objective journalism shows like TAL do not have a place for more metaphoric/abstract/sense-of-the-truth story-telling, then it also means we need less of those shows.

  4. Your argument is not intellectually consistent, though maybe you don’t believe in logic, either.

    The reason why so many Americans are misinformed is because of the number of journalists who choose to tell stories that aren’t true.

    Yes, of course our perceptions and memories are flawed. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to observe and pass on the truth. If you don’t believe, really believe, in an objective truth, then you don’t really believe in law or morality.

  5. Sorry, I’m going to reply a bit out of order…

    “If you don’t believe, really believe, in an objective truth, then you don’t really believe in law or morality.”

    That’s a rather large leap. Law and morality are quite often arbitrary boundaries. Does someone magically become an adult at age 18? Not really, but for many legal things that’s the case. Many legal principles hinge on intent – essentially saying that some actions are criminal based on the perspective of the accused. Are speed limits set based on objective truth about safety, or are they just arbitrary limits?

    What is moral has changed over time. A far-right Christian will argue that it is immoral to tolerate homosexuality as you are condemning people to eternal torture. I on the other hand don’t believe in any such thing and feel that it is immoral to have a society that torments gay children to the point that their rate of suicide is above the norm. Is my morality more objectively true than a far-right Christians?

    “The reason why so many Americans are misinformed is because of the number of journalists who choose to tell stories that aren’t true.”

    Yes – I said as much:

    “Fox News tells stories. They are rather depressing stories in my opinion, but they are well crafted and accessible to people who listen to them.”

    Stories are powerful tools to communicate about ourselves and our society. They are so powerful that they are trumping “objective journalism.” My point was that objective journalism is so wonderful, it wouldn’t be trumped.

    And I’m afraid I don’t agree with the “Green Lantern theory of journalism” – if there was more objective journalism and we believed in it more it would be completely effective. It plays a role, I don’t disagree there. But so does story. And on the modern progressive side we’ve largely lacked story and what we have we dismiss.

    Pretty much every culture has storytelling. And while stories help us understand truths they are not the truth. In a way the cult of objective journalism is the secular version of Bible literalism. The Bible is a collection of stories as well. They may have been vaguely based on true events but they are not literally true. I’m an atheist, but I can still see the value of some of the stories in the Bible in helping people understand their world. Of course many of them are also deeply disturbing.

    “Your argument is not intellectually consistent, though maybe you don’t believe in logic, either.”

    I feel that it is. And I work in a field where logic is very necessary. However we’re not really fully logical creatures. And even in engineering and science we rely on our guts for some decisions.

    We have our stories too.

  6. You’ve made my point for me — you don’t believe in objective truth, and as you say quite explicitly, you don’t believe in law or morality, either.

    But let’s just drop it here…we clearly have opposite world views. Thanks for reading LWON.

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