Paul Ekman’s Work Makes Prime Time TV
A distinguished psychology researcher and member translates lie detection science for public audience.
Published April 11, 2009
Decades into a distinguished psychology career researching and decoding the facial expressions of people from California to Papua New Guinea, Paul Ekman now finds himself dedicating half his time to a Fox Network television show. A new series, Lie To Me, which airs Wednesday nights at 9:00 pm ET, is based on the life work of the scientist known for developing the Facial Action Coding System to read the meaning in human expression.
The show’s protagonist, Cal Lightman, is “the world’s leading deception expert” who assists law enforcement and government agencies by studying facial expressions and involuntary body language to discover whether and why someone is lying.
Ekman, who had attained celebrity scientist status over the years as he appeared in numerous magazines, national newspapers, and television shows including Larry King, Oprah, Johnny Carson, and the Bill Moyers’ special The Truth About Lying, says the new Fox program “is an unusual role for a scientist in a television program, and an unusual television program to rely on science.” The show’s genesis was a 2002 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell that described Ekman’s work. It caught the eye of Brian Grazer, head of Imagine Television and producer of the shows 24 and House and blockbuster movies such as Titanic and Ghostbusters.
“Brian contacted me and said ‘I love your work and I want to get it on TV and I want to get the right writer’,” says Ekman. Two years later, Ekman began collaborating with writer Samuel Baum and now has a contract with 20th Century Fox to critically review each script for scientific accuracy and plausibility.
Ekman loans the show’s producers his private collection of materials depicting liars and truth tellers, and provides the show’s actors with video clips of him demonstrating some of the most difficult-to-perform facial expressions and gestures. Ekman also writes a weekly column, The Truth about Lie to Me, in which he elaborates on parts of that week’s episode that are based on science and explains which parts shouldn’t be taken seriously. For fans who want even more detail, Ekman pens a bimonthly newsletter about the nature of lying called Reading Between the Lies.
Ekman says that while many cases on the show draw on his own experiences, Fox’s writers are barred from basing personal aspects of Lightman’s character on him. For instance, Ekman says, “Cal Lightman is young, divorced, British, and has a strained relationship with his one child while I have 30-year marriage and good relationships with my two children.” Ekman says there are also some striking professional differences between him and the television version of the lie expert: “Lightman is always more certain than I am about everything. He solves in 24 hours what sometimes take me 6 months. He has a better equipped, better looking lab than me. And I do work with a number of government agencies, but not as many as he’s working with. Clearly more branches are impressed with the usefulness of his work than the usefulness of mine!”
Nevertheless, Ekman says each case mimics work he is either doing at the moment or has undertaken in the past. “They haven’t done anything that I haven’t already done, but they’re doing more of it because they’re better funded and he’s younger than me!”
As the show’s first season comes to an end with episode 13, Ekman says network executives will decide whether to commission a full season of 22 episodes for next year. To watch past episodes, read Ekman’s analysis of each show, or test your own deception skills, visit .
Ekman's extensive publishing history includes editing a volume of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences on the evolution of emotions. Read his paper from that volume, “Darwin, Deception, and Facial Expressions”.