USF Professor of psychology Maureen O’Sullivan (center) analyzes facial expressions with students. Her research is the basis for the popular television crime series "Lie to Me."
Her waistline hasn’t been as skinny as that of the actress who portrays
her in the Fox television crime drama “Lie to Me” since she was a
pre-teen, jokes USF Professor of psychology Maureen O’Sullivan in her
offhanded way of noting the irony of Hollywood, a place of fiction and
fabrication, being captivated by her work. Still, there’s no denying
that it’s her years of research on deception and lie detection upon
which the show is based.
O’Sullivan has been researching social
emotional intelligence – the ability to manage, recognize, communicate,
and detect and decipher emotions in others – for more than 30 years.
She and colleague Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of
California San Francisco, have written dozens of articles about their
findings regarding some people’s uncanny ability to detect a lie using
little more than simple observation and life experience.
almost 20,000 people that O’Sullivan and others have tested, fewer than
one percent come close to the fictional Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) –
the lead character in “Lie to Me” who is loosely based on Ekman, and
who is able to discover lies through micro-facial expressions, the lilt
in someone’s voice, or their personal ticks as part of his work on
Like people in the real world,
including expert lie detectors, Fox's fictional Dr. Gillian Foster
(Kelli Williams) – who is loosly based on O'Sullivan and is Lightman’s
more holistic television sidekick – has trouble detecting the same lies
in her own relationships.
“We believe the lies we are told
because we want to believe them,” said O’Sullivan, who in spite of
being an expert in deception, admits to being duped out of large sum of
money by a real estate investor about 15 years ago. In meeting the man,
who was recommended to her by friends, she observed that he was overly
anxious and didn’t appear to be very intelligent. Still, she followed
her friends’ advice.
“I invested and I lost money,” O’Sullivan said. “I let my greed get in the way. I let that sway me.”
believes the popularity of “Lie to Me” is a result of the public’s
attraction to what goes on in the minds and hearts of others.
while she enjoys the show, there are many aspects, outside of her
waistline, that aren’t true to science, O’Sullivan said. For one,
people aren’t born “natural” lie detectors but have a greater or lesser
capacity to learn to detect lies through working with people.
tend to do well in detecting lies about theft; therapists tend to do
better detecting lies about emotion,” said O’Sullivan, who is writing a
book on a number of the so-called Truth Wizards, or lie detection
experts, she has interviewed over the years.
These are people
who can detect a lie at least 80 percent of the time on average by
watching video of someone. “Some of these individuals are exceptional,”
O’Sullivan said. “They’re like Olympic athletes.”
a psychology major who recenlty graduated from at USF, thinks it’s
“pretty great” that her professor’s work is penetrating the mainstream.
Working with O’Sullivan has dramatically contributed to her education
and allowed her to present some of the research at the Western
Psychology Association Convention in Irvine in April 2008.
many ways I felt as though Dr. O'Sullivan was the backbone of my
experience at USF,” said Klaber, who did data entry, analysis, and
occasionally ran experiments. “She was an invaluable mentor, my
adviser, and my supervisor.”