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Is Lie to Me Lying to You? The Truth Behind the Hit Show

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You may have seen the show Lie to Me at some point. In this TV show Tim Roth plays the deception expert Cal Lightman. Lightman is famous for spotting lies and body language and being able to tell right away if someone is honest to you. But is this really possible? Or is Lie to Me lying to you?

Is Lie to Me True?

If you’ve seen Lie to Me then you know how it works: Dr. Lightman is brought in when people really need to be sure they’re not being lied to. In the time of an episode Dr. Lightman is able to spot the lies and solve the case. He does this with a team of fellow body language experts.

While of course this is a product of Hollywood, there is some truth to the show.

The Theory Behind Lie to Me:

Dr. Lightman’s character is loosely based on Dr. Paul Ekman and his work. Dr. Ekman is famous for his research into human emotions, lie detection and his discovery of micro-expressions. Micro-expressions are expressions of emotions which are only displayed very briefly; only 1/5 of a second or even faster. These micro-expressions leak what the person expressing them is really feeling. The other person may be smiling at you, but if you see a micro-expression of contempt, you will want to dig a little deeper into whether the person likes you or not.

Spotting micro-expressions is one of the foremost weapons in Lightman’s arsenal. Because he is highly trained in spotting them, he claims he can call right away if you’re lying or not. Of course he also uses other ways of spotting lies such as speech analysis, watching for (hidden) gestures and partial psycho-analysis.

3 Things that are Wrong with Lie to Me:

There are some things that are just not quite right in Lie to Me. Because the show only has 40-45 minutes to air, they need to cut corners. This, however, does take away from the accuracy of what is going on in the body language department.

1: Baselining isn’t done much

Baselining is the process of observing how a person naturally acts. How does he or she hold her hands? Does he/she use a lot of expressions? How does the person speak? What words are used in normal speech? Once you’ve observed the person and established a baseline you can start looking for differences in the baseline. If you see any differences that could mean that the person is lying.

In the first season of Lie to Me a lot of attention is paid to this very important part of lie detection. But as the show progresses through its three seasons, baselining seems to happen less and less while Dr. Lightman is as accurate as ever. This is a big difference with how lie detection really works.

2: Lightman solving a case

The combination of a researcher/psychologist actually solving a case is pretty low. In the show Lightman is often able to solve the case, sometimes even on his own. In reality it is rarely the case that a researcher or psychologist solves a case. These professionals are brought in to help, for example police or other agencies, solve a case.

3: There is no such thing as the Lightman Group in real life

In the show Lightman has his own company; the Lightman Group. In reality there is no such company. Professionals like the one Lightman portrays usually work for companies and government agencies. Government agencies like the CIA, FBI and police departments usually have a professionally trained deception expert. It isn’t impossible for such an expert to set up their own company dedicated to lie detection, but at the moment there is no such company.


So, is Lie to Me actually lying to you? Well, yes and no. The episodes are usually founded in science but there are some liberties taken to make the show appealing to the public. The lesson here is not to take everything you see on the show as fact. Take it with a grain of salt, enjoy Tim Roth’s brilliant performance as Lightman but don’t let it fool you into thinking that everything you see is true.

This article is by Michiel Andreae, who is a body language expert in training from The Netherlands. He loves to teach people how to improve their communication skills through body language and to coach people to make better use of their nonverbal skills. Find him on Twitter

Learn the 5 scientifically proven steps to being a lie detector in our online training. Never miss a lie again. You’ll be able to spot deception and uncover hidden emotions, and unlock the secret language of lies.

8 thoughts on “Is Lie to Me Lying to You? The Truth Behind the Hit Show”

  1. I’ve also noticed the ridiculous use of NLP to read lies based on eye movement “Baselining.” There is a lot of research that has disproven many facets of Neuro-linguistic programming, specifically the eye tracking.

    1. Zach, Totally wrong, the show simplified the process but it does work. I have solved many crimes including murder. The whole body is involved but the eyes react very quickly and are accurate, don’t care what your science says. I have talked to Ekman.

      1. What do you have to do to get into one of these deception spots for FBI or a police agency? College? Testing? Etc, any reply would be great!

  2. Ekman states that roughly 90% of what we see in the show is truthful to his studies. That is incredibly high (Probably the most factual of any TV series or film to date)

  3. I’ve always wondered since i watched the series of lie to me, what would it be like to have the skill set of Mr. Lightman? Even just a fraction of what he can read. Just to be able to tell if say someone likes me, or if someone doesn’t want to talk anymore, etc. Even getting down to things like being able to know what someone is feeling or about to say without them saying or doing anything.

    1. It’s a skill I seriously worked on to hone it to the best of my ability—which if you can put in the work, it is possible; but I do think it’s important to factor in that I come from a ‘complicated’ home situation & unfortunately also have experience with abusive relationships. I had a relationship go left so quickly & believing I could/should have seen it coming, I was drawn to micro-expressions, body language, even neurolinguistic programming (among with lots therapy to ‘break the cycle’)— anything that could help possibly develop anticipatory abilities. I’ve learned that 95% of people are truly awful liars & the unconscious bodily responses that occur when anyone lies are pretty uniform. Once you know what to look for, it’s often so apparent you can’t believe you never noticed before. While I believe it’s mostly served me well & saved me a lot of heartache, recognizing & dealing with people lying at all– even if it’s the stupidest “I got stuck in traffic” type lie– can be really difficult.

  4. To have that skill set is more of a pain than anyone thinks.. Able to read a person like that, and then having to play along with his /her lie, while dealing with the mixed emotions of being lied to, if you should confront or not, at what cost etc.. Esp true when it’s from near and dear ones..
    On the converse, it helps speaking ur mind, that you don’t care where and how which facial muscle twitches,. ?

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