Paul Ekman, PhD, is another psychologist and author making a name for himself in primetime TV. The critically acclaimed Fox drama, "Lie to Me," which debuted in January and airs on Wednesday nights, is based on Ekman's research on nonverbal communication and truth detection.
Ekman sold Fox his professional life rights, but contractually nothing about his personal life can be used in the TV program. The show's fictional scientist, Dr. Cal Lightman, is British, while Ekman is American. Furthermore, Ekman says, Lightman (played by Tim Roth) "has a totally edgy, almost arrogant personality, and that's not what my colleagues say about me."
But what the two do share is a knack for picking out liars based on brief facial expressions, body movements and speech patterns. As a consultant to the program, Ekman reviews scripts and alerts writers when the plot contradicts his research findings. He also writes a weekly commentary for the show's Web site called "The Truth About Lie to Me," that debunks storylines that aren't science based, such as an episode in which Lightman insinuates that he can tell someone is lying after the person rubs his nose. But most of the time, Ekman says the writers put forth an entertaining story that's evidence-based, albeit they achieve results much more quickly than it takes him to complete similar research.
"Dr. Lightman, in less than 45 minutes, accomplishes things that take me weeks, if not months, to figure out," Ekman says. "But I suppose if they really showed what I do, people would change the channel because it would be too slow."
Ekman also revels in the fact that the show has provided him with the opportunity to get his ideas and research findings distributed to so many people.
"I've been an author or editor of 15 books, and if I put together sales of all 15, it's a fraction of the number of people who see the show in one week," Ekman says. "It's an enormous opportunity to inform."