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

Now Johnson is turning her detective skills to a weekly mystery series. Poker face stars Natasha Lyonne as Charle Cale, a woman with the innate ability to tell when 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. This format differs from thriller in that the audience can see the crime happening. The payoff isn’t knowing who the bad guy is, it’s watching Charlie put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Throughout history, many people have made a living claiming to have a special relationship with the truth. Some of them were charlatans, some were deceived, and some could have been real. The kind of quick wits they write books about and make TV shows about. Some have attempted to manufacture machines or chemical cocktails capable of extracting the truth by force. All enjoy a tenuous relationship with the truth, at best. Yet what if you don’t need a lie detector or a truth serum, and you just need the right kind of person with the right skills to detect the truth?


Lie detectors are based on the idea that there are measurable physiological effects that occur when a person lies. And, if you know what those effects are, you can tell when someone is telling the truth and when they are not. There may be some truth to the underlying premise, but how people physically react to lying is a bit more complicated than we’d 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 clues people can choose from. Some people sweat and others hyperventilate. Some people look around as if asking for help and others bite their lip. And others might do none of that and show no outward signs of deception. To make matters worse, a truthful person may also exhibit one of these signs, not because they are guilty, but because they are nervous for reasons unrelated to your questioning.

A commonly accepted way of telling someone is lying is to look up and to the left. Or was it up and to the right? Wait… maybe high is for truth and low is when you lie? The truth is that all of these are true and none of them are. Looking in a particular direction can be a physiological clue that a person is deceiving, but it can also be an involuntary reaction. You can also turn your head when thinking, access the real information from memory. There’s even evidence that dogs do the same thing when they’re thinking about something.

As reported by National geographic, an FBI interrogator noted that over a twenty-five-year career – which included thousands of interviews with suspects – both innocent and guilty people can exhibit what is called peacemaking behavior when they are questioned. These are the types of gestures often associated with lying: shaking, sweating, blushing, staring, chewing your lip, etc.

Two people may exhibit nearly identical behavior but have entirely different motives. The same FBI interrogator noted a time during his career when a woman being interrogated exhibited all the typical signs of a deceptive person. They found out later that she had parked a meter away and feared her time was up and she would get a ticket. Just because a person is nervous doesn’t mean they’re guilty of who you think they are. Incomplete information is the enemy of truth.


Studies have shown that, on average, people are no better at knowing whether or not someone is telling the truth than a draw. Taken as a whole, humans seem to be pretty bad at uncovering the truth based solely on suspicious statements. In fact, several studies have shown no significant difference in lie detection ability from person to person. When it comes to lie detectors, most people have more or less the same ability, and the ability is poor.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, studies have shown that we’re no better at knowing when our friends are lying than we are with strangers. This seems to go against the common sense notion that we can read people we are close to better than others. But it could also explain why people so often say “I never would have guessed, they seemed so normal” when they find out their neighbors have done something horrible. We’re just not good at seeing things that are hidden from us.

That said, some researchers believe the ability to tell when someone is lying is like any other attribute, ability, or talent. Some think it is akin to something like musical or artistic talent. Some of us might have more innate abilities than others, and more importantly, you might be able to train yourself to be better at it. There is evidence, for example, that members of the secret service or intelligence community do somewhat better on lie detector tests than the rest of the population. What is unclear is whether this is the result of training or whether people with innate abilities gravitate towards these jobs. It is also possible that the relatively small effect is a statistical anomaly and not actual evidence of improved ability.

What seems to help is working with others. A study asked people to judge music videos in which people lie or tell 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 decision individually. Researchers found that groups able to discuss video clips and share information back and forth were consistently better at determining when someone was lying than people who had to go it alone.

Although the study does not explain why groups are better than individuals, only that they were, it does seem to suggest that our first impressions are necessarily incomplete and therefore likely to be wrong. But by talking with our peers and sharing our unique perceptions, we are able to build a more robust collective model that matches reality more often. When it comes to uncovering the truth, there is literally strength in numbers. Turns out, we don’t live in the kind of world where super sleuths with incredible mystery-solving abilities can seek justice where others can’t.

But you can visit a world like this in Poker face, premiering January 26, only on Peacock. You’re going to want to round up everyone you know. Watching TV, like discovering the truth, is always better with friends.

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