In Truth, ‘Lie to Me’ Breeds Misconceptions

New research suggests viewing the television drama ‘Lie to Me’ increases suspicion of others, but lessens one’s ability to detect lies.
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Not too many viewers of House turn off the set and start diagnosing their friends’ medical symptoms. But the temptation for emulation is surely greater for another Fox television series, Lie to Me.

The weekly drama, which debuted in 2009, is based on the premise that liars can be spotted based on close observations of specific, subtle behaviors. The lead character, a psychologist with an uncanny ability to read body language and facial expressions, is loosely based on real-life social scientist Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco.

Given the program’s supposed grounding in scientific theory and the well-documented ability of fictionalized dramatizations to influence opinions, it is reasonable to assume some viewers feel they gain insights that can help them distinguish facts from falsehoods. But newly published research suggests watching the show seems to have the opposite effect.

Lie to Me appears to increase skepticism at the cost of accuracy,” reports a research team led by Timothy Levine, a professor of communication at Michigan State University. Its study, published in the journal Communication Research, finds watching the drama increases suspicion of others even as it reduces one’s ability to detect deception.

Not long after the show’s debut, Levine and his colleagues conducted an experiment featuring 108 undergraduates. Thirty-three of them watched an episode of Lie to Me, while another 35 watched a different crime drama, Numb3rs, in which a brilliant math professor solves crimes. The other 35 watched neither program and served as a control group.

Afterward, all the participants saw a series of 12 taped interviews. Of the people being questioned, six were telling the truth, and six consistently lied. After watching each interview, the participants declared whether they believed the person being interviewed was answering the questions honestly.

“Viewers of Lie to Me were found to be more skeptical than the other two groups,” the researchers report. That’s not a surprise, in that “the lead character in the show is on the constant lookout for lies, and lying is generally portrayed as pervasive.”

But their increased skepticism “failed to improve lie detection or true-lie discrimination,” Levine and his colleagues write. “It did, however, significantly reduce the proportion of correctly identified honest interviews.”

To put it another way: The cynicism the show bred led viewers to falsely label more honest people as liars, but it did not make them any better at identifying actual liars as liars, which led to an overall decrease in their accuracy.

The control group was the most accurate, correctly identifying the person as honest or dishonest 65.2 percent of the time. The Numb3rs group came in second, at 61.7 percent, while the Lie to Me group came in last at 59.5 percent.

Levine and his colleagues argue that their findings have real-life implications. First, they complain that the most recent research casts doubt on the accuracy and effectiveness of lie-detection methods presented on the series as unfailingly successful. (Ekman parses each episode, pointing out when the writers use poetic license on his blog.)

So once again, “fictional media portrayal of social science theory leads to confusion between fiction and fact,” the researchers write. “Viewers (of the show) may come away with the false sense they can better detect lies. Viewers may also acquire a false sense that law enforcement officers are being effectively trained to detect deception and, therefore, may be less critical as jurors or witnesses.”

So the next time you turn on a television show, keep in mind that the creators just may be lying to you.

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