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Human lie detectors? The science behind 'Poker Face'

I can just tell.

By Cassidy Ward
Poker Face

Rian Johnson is quickly emerging as the modern master of mystery. We should have seen it coming. His work on things like Brick, Looper, and The Last Jedi made it clear he was capable of weaving a complex and interconnected narrative. Then he dropped Knives Out, a modern masterpiece in the genre, and followed it up with Glass Onion.

Now Johnson is turning his sleuthing talents toward a weekly mystery series. Poker Face stars Natasha Lyonne as Charle Cale, a woman with the innate ability to tell whenever someone is lying to her. According to Vanity Fair, the series will follow a “howcatchem” format in each of its ten “mystery of the week” episodes. That format differs from the whodunit in that the audience gets to see the crime occur. The payoff isn’t figuring who the villain is, it’s in watching Charlie put the puzzle pieces together.

Throughout history, plenty of people have made a living claiming to have a special relationship with the truth. Some of them were charlatans, others were deluded, and others might have been the real thing. The sorts of sharp minds they write books and make TV shows about. Some have attempted to craft machines or chemical cocktails capable of extracting the truth by force. All of which enjoy a tenuous relationship with the truth, at best. Still, what if you don’t need a lie detector or a truth serum, what if you just need the right kind of person with the right sorts of skills to sniff out the truth?

TICKS AND TRICKS

Lie detectors are based on the idea that there are measurable physiological effects which occur when a person lies. And, if you know what those effects are, you can tell when someone is being truthful and when they are not. There may be some truth to the underlying premise but how people react physically to lying is a little more complicated than we might like.

Rather than having one or two surefire ways to tell if a person isn’t telling the truth, it’s more like there’s a buffet of potential physiological cues which people can pick and choose from. Some people sweat and other people hyperventilate. Some people look around as if for help and others chew their lips. And others might do none of these things and exhibit no outward sign their being deceitful. To make matters worse, a truthful person might also exhibit any one of those signs, not because they are guilty but because they are nervous for reasons unrelated to your line of questioning.

One commonly believed way to tell that someone is lying is that they look up and to the left. Or was it up and to the right? Wait… maybe up is for the truth and down is when you’re lying? The truth is, all of these are true and none of them are. Looking in a particular direction might be a physiological hint that a person is being deceptive, but it might also just be an involuntary reaction. You might also turn your head when you’re thinking, accessing true memory information. There’s even some evidence that dogs do the same thing when they’re thinking about something.

Pictured: Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in POKER FACE Season 1 Episode 4

As reported by National Geographic, an FBI interrogator noted that over the course of a twenty-five year career – which included thousands of suspect interviews – both innocent and guilty people can exhibit what’s known as pacifying behavior when being questioned. Those are the sorts of gestures often associated with lying: trembling, sweating, blushing, glazing around, chewing your lip, etc.

Any two people might exhibit nearly identical behavior but have entirely different motives. The same FBI interrogator noted a time during his career when a woman being questioned had all the typical signs of someone being deceitful. They later found out she had parked at a meter and was worried her time would run out and she’d be ticketed. Just because a person is nervous, doesn’t mean they’re guilty of the specific thing you think they are. Incomplete information is the enemy of the truth.

ARE SOME PEOPLE BETTER THAN OTHERS?

Studies have found that, on average, people are no better at figuring out if someone is telling the truth or not than a coin toss. When taken in aggregate, humans appear to be pretty bad at figuring out the truth based on suspect statements alone. In fact, multiple studies have shown no significant difference in lie detection ability from one person to the next. In terms of being lie detectors, most people have more or less the same ability and that ability is poor.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, studies have shown that we aren’t any better at telling when our friends are lying than we are with strangers. That seems to fly in the face of the common sense notion that we can read people we’re close to better than others. But it might also explain why people so often say “I never would have guessed, they seemed so normal” when they discover their neighbors did something horrific. We’re just not that good at seeing things being hidden from us.

That said, some researchers believe that the ability to tell when someone is lying is like any other attribute, ability, or talent. Some believe it's akin to something like musical or artistic talent. Some of us might have more innate ability than others and, importantly, you might be able to train yourself to be better at it. There’s some evidence, for instance, that members of the secret service or the intelligence community perform a little bit better at lie detection tests than the rest of the population. What’s unclear is if that’s a result of training or if people with innate ability gravitate toward those jobs. It’s also possible that the relatively small effect is a statistical anomaly and not actually evidence of any enhanced ability.

Pictured: (l-r) Dascha Polanco as Natalie, Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in POKER FACE Season 1 Episode 1

What does appear to help is working with others. A study asked people to judge video clips in which people were either lying or telling the truth. Some groups were allowed to work together, discuss the clips, and come to a consensus decision. Other groups had to watch the videos and make a determination individually. Researchers found that groups who were able to discuss the video clips and share information back and forth were consistently better at figuring out when someone was lying than people who had to go it alone.

While the study didn’t explain why groups are better than individuals, only that they were, it seems to suggest that our first impressions are necessarily incomplete and thus likely to be wrong. But by discussing with our peers and sharing our unique perceptions, we’re able to build a more robust collective model which more often aligns with reality. When it comes to figuring out the truth, there is literally strength in numbers. Turns out, we don’t live in the sort of world where super sleuths with incredible mystery-solving abilities can seek out justice in the places others can’t tread.

But you can visit a world like that in Poker Face, premiering January 26, only on Peacock. You’re going to want to gather everyone you know. Watching television, like figuring out the truth, is always better with friends.

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