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Analyzing 'Lie to Me': An expert on lie detection examines Fox's drama about a lie detection expert




Like most journalists, I'm fascinated with the idea of detecting what people are really thinking, just by looking at them.

And there's nobody I've met who is better at that particular art than Tampa resident Joe Navarro. A retired FBI agent and master interrogator, he's written loads of books on decoding non-verbal behavior -- physical reactions that spring from parts of our brain instinctively hard-wired to respond to stress and threats.

(Here's a story I wrote based around trying to observe the material from Navarro's book, What EveryBODY is Saying, at the BayWalk shopping complex in St. Petersburg. And here's my story on our first real interview, including his criticisms of the interrogations shown on the Fox TV show 24)


So who better to watch Fox's fictional series about a human lie detector, Lie to Me?

I sat down with Navarro last week to watch the episode of the show airing tonight, featuring a woman who thinks she had a psychic vision of a murder. Tim Roth plays Dr. Cal Lightman, a charismatic yet brusque expert in non-verbal communication who runs about like a human lie detector.

Here's the story which resulted; I snagged some quotes too long for the newspaper for inclusion here.

We started with Roth's first scene, where Lightman prepares to speak at a book signing:

"In this opening scene, one of the things that you see is as he’s looking around the room – and, interestingly, he focuses on several females – is you have one that’s looking over an object, like a newspaper or a book, so she’s sort of shielding herself. You have another one who’s very rigid in her face. There’s no … her neck is not angled in any way, and the orbits of her eyes are very narrow. Any time the orbits of the eyes are narrow, it’s because we have concerns or there’s some issue there. So someone says, you know, something that’s politically incorrect, we sort of narrow the eyes. Someone says, you know, your car’s about to be ticketed if we don’t hurry … these kinds of things. So he’s looking and he’s analyzing the whole audience. So, as a true observer, which he’s obviously portraying here, he is letting everybody in the audience speak to him. This is a matter of assessing for comfort and discomfort, and that’s what he does. And he lets the audience speak to him before they even say a word."

Roth plays Lightman as a perpetually busy, always impatient genius with a habit of making people hyperaware of his truthtelling abilities, which struck Navarro as counterproductive.

"I’ve seen a couple of episodes here on the show where he immediately points out, oh, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, you’re doing that. And first of all, it makes those people uncomfortable because you become self-conscious, and I’ve had people literally say to me, 'I don’t know how to sit in front of you, I don’t know what to do.' This is why, in this matter, this show is not very … is not very accurate is, the minute you begin to call out the behaviors on people, they’ll mask them. So you’ve lost that channel of communication. So if I say, well, Eric, every time you’re stressed, you bite the corner of your lip, you’ll stop doing it. And now I have to work very hard to find, okay, where did that tell now gravitate to? So this is something that a true professional never reveals."


Navarro says often you can't tell if someone is lying. But here's how he can tell if a question makes you uncomfortable:

"One of the things that I’m looking at is when the person is asked a question, what is he struggling with? Because a liar or someone in a forensic setting … you’re gonna struggle with three things: the question that you hear, processing that question, coming up with an answer... And this is something that attorneys really aren’t trained to do, is look for those three things. So, one of the things that you then look for is, what is the reaction to the question? Then, how do they process it? And then the final answer is, how is that answered? Did it flow, were there speech errors – um, you know, stuff like that?"

Navarro likes that Roth's Lightman doesn't try hiding his own feelings.


"He doesn’t really hide how he feels and you can read it on his face, how he feels about different things. And I’m often asked that – do I try to hide how I feel about things, and I say that’s just too hard. It’s just too hard. It’s easier to show reserve if I’m reserved or to just be gleeful if something’s exciting, but to constantly try to hide how you really feel – that just becomes really hard work.. And I think it’s interesting here, where he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t try to just have a, you know, like a … have a poker face."

One way a character spots a lack of confidence in another's answer in tonight's episode; the downward chin tuck.

"When she asks him about whether or not he’s had a relationship outside of marriage – and one doesn’t really know the truth here because we don’t know the facts – notice his chin gets tucked in, way deep. When we’re confident about things, our chin is out, but when we tuck it way, way, in … chin withdrawal is part of those same behaviors that we see with a lot of mammals … for instance, with dogs and cats who withdraw their ears because they feel threatened or they’re gonna attack or something. Jaw withdrawal and thumb withdrawal are two behaviors that we do when we feel like we’re being threatened."

Roth's Lightman also asks questions well.

"If you notice, whenever he makes an inquiry, he tilts his head. Head tilt, other than a smile, is probably one of the more powerful things that we can transmit to say I’m really curious and I’m interested and I’m empathetic. We know that babies recognize it. Mother tilts her head toward the baby, the baby smiles and so forth, so these are powerful things. The one thing that you wouldn’t see in a real setting is sitting across from each other. When people sit, this gets the least amount of work done. Because it’s too confrontational. This gets the most work done – at angles. And so, in a therapeutic setting or a forensic setting, you would actually sit at an angle so that the person isn’t aroused by you being in front."

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:02pm]


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