Editor's Note, this story will appear in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American MIND and has been made available early due to tonight's series premiere of Lie To Me.
Lie to Me
FOX, Wednesdays at 9 P.M. EST
“If you see this microexpression in your spouse’s face, your marriage is coming to an end,” announces Dr. Cal Lightman to a room full of skeptical FBI agents as they watch a recording of a neo-Nazi skinhead accused of planning arson. Lightman, played by Tim Roth in the new TV series Lie to Me, has seen something in the convict’s face the rest of us might miss, a snarl that flashes by in a split second, called a microexpression. When he freezes the video, the agents and the television audience can recognize the fleeting grimace of anger and scorn.
Lightman’s abilities to read faces and solve crimes are based on the real-life work of the field’s pioneer, psychologist Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. “The big difference between us is that he’s pretty cocky, and I’m not,” Ekman says. “Lightman tells people what he sees even when he hasn’t been asked. I wouldn’t want him as my friend.” But if Ekman’s skills are as impressive as his alter ego’s, he has every right to boast. According to Ekman, his research techniques can detect lies in real life situations better than polygraph tests can. On the show, not only can Lightman tell when someone is fibbing, he can determine why.
As Lie to Me’s scientific adviser, Ekman comments on each script. He says he is pleased with the evidence-based story lines, such as when images flash on-screen of Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and other recognizable mugs caught in compromising contortions. For the rest of us, the series provides lessons seamlessly written into each plot on how to tell if someone is prevaricating. “Some of these clues you can learn easily,” Ekman promises. “You’ll see it on the show once and you’ll never miss it again.”
Every week he will blog at www.fox.com/lietome about the science behind each episode, such as how experts read the emotions underlying arched eyebrows and dilated pupils. Close-up shots of expressions, such as that of an accused teen as he breaks eye contact to honestly recall events, give the audience an eerie insight into what experts such as Ekman catch us doing all the time. As Lightman says, “The truth is written on all our faces.”
MORE THAN IQ
What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought
by Keith E. Stanovich. Yale University Press, 2009 ($30)
Clumsy speech, immense overconfidence, heavy reliance on intuition rather than factual evidence: many people associate these attributes with George W. Bush, and some believe, based on these traits, that the former president is a man of inferior intelligence. That is why so many people were stunned when, during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush’s IQ score was estimated to be 120—well above average and about the same as that of his opponent John Kerry. Psychologist Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto, however, was not surprised at all by Bush’s IQ. In his new book he explains why.
Stanovich is convinced that intelligence is different from the ability to make rational decisions and that the two traits do not always coexist. IQ tests measure only part of our cognitive qualities, he argues, and critical thinking is not included. As a result “some people can have very high IQs but be remarkably weak when it comes to the ability to think rationally,” he writes. Yet our society is “fixated on assessing intelligence” and completely ignores rationality. Parents and teachers place great emphasis on trying to raise more intelligent children, but teaching kids to become rational human beings receives much less attention—even though critical thinking would be easy to teach, Stanovich says. This oversight is a serious problem because “societal consequences of irrational thinking are profound,” Stanovich adds. For example, jurors have admitted to having made their decisions based on astrology, and Americans waste billions of dollars a year on quack medical remedies.