Obsession to Lie Detection in US Series

Non-game-related rant.

I have been amazed about the US series revolving around lie detection such as Lie to Me and The Moment of Truth. In those, the truth-by-science fetishism bothers me; the idea that one can detect a lie without errors is suspicious using machines or just watching facial expressions and body language.

Even when this premise (that one can detect lies without error) is contested in an episode of  In Lie to Me, the way this is done is interesting. In that episode, the main character cannot spot lying of other character. The main character concludes that the lying character is psychopathic, because he did not react normal ways to the pictures (this is plausible hypothesis). After this, the main character assumes that this psychopath must be a serial killer (this suspicion turns out to be true later in the episode).

But, if all the people having psychopathic disorder would be serial killers, the world would be full of serial killers; it has been estimated that 1% of the whole population have psychopathic disorder (using  Wikipedia as reference here, but I remember seeing the same figure in Grossman’s book On Killing).

Lie detection may work with average population, but how the lie detection work with certain pathologies? Do they have similar psychophysiology as a normal person?  It seems that psychopaths have decreased fear responses. How about pathological liars (cf. people with gambling addiction do not have similar fear reactions to risky bets that average people; see Damasio, Descartes’s Error)?

Published by lankoski

Petri Lankoski, D.Arts, is a Associate Professor in Game Studies at the school of Communication, Media and IT at the Södertörn University, Sweden. His research focuses on game design, game characters, role-playing, and playing experience. Petri has been concentrating on single-player video games but researched also (multi-player) pnp and live-action role-playing games. This blog focuses on his research on games and related things.

6 thoughts on “Obsession to Lie Detection in US Series

  1. I like Lie to Me, because it has basis in actual science and the guy who came up with the theory is helping with the series. I agree with you on the whole pathologies issue, but personally find micro exspressions geeky cool. 🙂 (I think the serieal killer thing is shallow at best – but the general use of the micro exspressions and modifiers etc in spotting certain traits of lies/detection is functional, there is loads of research on it in phychology. 🙂

    I also understand why he started to research it after hearing the origins story. (not gonna spoil it here)

  2. Noteworthy thing about micro expression is that some of them are measurable, but not perceivable with eyes.

    Digging some more research, and it seems that autonomic under-activation is not feature of psychopathy alone, but rather typical with the antisocial people and with ADHD disorder. (see, Verschuere, Crombez, Koster, 2006 “Psychopathy and physiological detection of concealed information: a review”). Facial expression, I suspect, also follow the pattern: smaller expressions / muscle activations to perceive.

  3. In most cases, psychopathy does not render a polygraph exam ineffective. For a polygraph to detect a lie, the examinee (person tested) must have a memory of the event in question and must understand that there are adverse consequences to being caught in the offense. It is the examinee’s evolved self-preservation response to the consequences that creates the deceptive polygraph exam, regardless of whether the examinee feels what he/she did was wrong, immoral, or inappropriate. – Michael Martin (President, Global Polygraph Network)

  4. Based on that review article mentioned above, certain disorders (including psychopathy) have autonomic under-activation, which would mean that possibility of adverse consequences would have reduced measurable psychophysiological reaction. This does not mean that polygraph is useless, but would be more prone to error.

    The above-mentioned study described by Damasion hints that risk of loosing does not trigger measurable fear in people with gambling addiction (when making a risky bet shows in psychophysiology of people without gambling addiction). Risk of loosing and getting caught of lie should be the same in terms of psychophysiology?

  5. Let’s not mix concepts, here. Polygraphy, as far as I understand, does not so much use microexpressions, but various measures of ANS activity (blood pressure and pulse, skin conductivity, respiration) to detect in essence arousal changes. Microexpressions can also be used for lie detection (and have been), but that definitely requires a far less automatized process.

    BTW, one doesn’t need a pathology to be less expressive, just being male is enough 🙂 There’s a lot of studies to show women in general are more expressive than men, including facial expressions, as well as hand gestures and other communicative gestures (e.g. nods). Don’t know how that’s for microexpressions, but wouldn’t it be rather odd to find the trend reversed there..?

  6. I am aware that facial (micro) expressions and measurements used in Polygraphy are not the same. However, I am suspicious on usefulness of the both with certain pathologies. Moreover, presentation of lie detection as fool-proof in fiction bothers me.

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