Law & Order SVU Body Language Fact Check

By David M. Schneer, Ph.D./CEO

3-Minute Read


Oh man, once I hear that sound[1], I’m like Pavlov’s Dogs running to the couch. It’s Law & Order SVU time, and I’m a rabid fan. The rich and complicated characters are experiential. Like we sometimes do in our research studies, I did a quick word association for some of my favorite characters:

ICE-T? Sarcastic.

Elliot? Skeptical.

Detective Rollins? Captivating.

Lieutenant Benson? Balanced.

Barba? Pugnacious.

Dr. Huang? Uber-Psychiatrist.

I rarely miss an episode. So, I was surprised when the other day, I stumbled upon an episode I had not previously seen, SEASON 6, EPISODE 18–“PURE”, which originally aired on March 8, 2005.

Suddenly the plot turned to body language. I sat up. My Spidey senses were tingling.

This episode featured former SNL comedian, Martin Short, who plays a psychic, Sebastian Ballentine. The psychic claims to know what happened to a missing 18-year-old girl. Stabler smells a rat and thinks Ballantine is dropping clues because he’s the culprit. But Dr. Huang explains to Elliot that the psychic is likely reading facial cues to obtain his information.

Then a picture of the major facial areas from my FACS manual[2] flashed across the screen.

That got me off the couch.

After watching this episode, I decided to fact-check the research and writing staff at Law & Order. Did they get the FACS facts right?

Let’s see.

Below are the verbatim 10 lines (italicized, bold faced and in quotes”) taken directly from the script of this episode. The scale? TrueMostly TrueMostly False, or False.

  1. “We give away volumes with our faces.” TRUE There are seven universal emotions that have very clear facial signs: anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt, and happiness. Neutral is the lack of any emotion.
  2. “There are 43 distinct facial movements.” MOSTLY TRUE but a cursory survey of the literature regarding the number of facial muscles varies by source. The Interviewer’s Guide sent along with the FACS manual mentions a 1977 study by Young and Decaries that resulted in “42 facial gestalts”,[3] but this refers to two different ways of measuring visible facial movements, the minimal units of behavior method or the list of possible facial gestalts approach. Dr. Ekman was interviewed in a 2003 New York Times article that referenced 43 facial muscles.[4] Interestingly, this article appeared two years before the episode aired, and it is conceivable that the Law & Order researchers/writers tapped into it. An article in the CBC references 43 distinct facial muscles.[5] Smithsonian Magazine mentions 42.[6] The HowStuffWorks website claims 43[7] The Medical University of Southern California hedged its bet and records “over 40 muscles.”[8] And finally, Atlanta Plastic Surgery weighs in with 43.”[9] So, why the discrepancies? One has to do with the process of quantifying facial muscles. Explains Duquesne’s Dr. Anne Burrows, an expert in the subject area, “The problem with quantifying facial musculature is that they’re not like other muscles. They’re fairly flat, difficult to separate from surrounding connective tissue, and they all attach to one another. They are very unlike muscles of the limbs, for example.”[10] The other issue? The number of facial muscles in humans can vary (cf. Waller et al., 2008). So, what is the actual number? I’m going with 43, and the Law & Order staff did their homework on a complicated subject.
  3. “A psychologist named Paul Ekman catalogued 3,000 possible combinations…making up the entire spectrum of human emotion.” MOSTLY TRUE. Technically, he identified 10,000 facial muscle movements but only 3,000 were related to emotion.
  4. “Why [was FACS invented]? To see if someone’s lying.” MOSTLY TRUE. Yes, FACS was created to help with deception detection, but the rubric is also used in the movie industry by computer animators to create characters with real emotions. Law enforcement also uses it.
  5. “FACS breaks facial movement down into action units.” TRUE. These are alphanumeric designations such as AU-1, AU-4, etc.
  6. “AU-1 is raising the frontalis par medialis. It’s the inner eyebrow. It’s a sign of distress.” TRUE The muscle behind the Inner Brow Raiser is the frontalis (pars medialis), which can be visible with the emotions of sadness, surprise, and fear.
  7. “FACS teaches you how to pick up on fleeting micro-expressions that most people don’t even see.” MOSTLY TRUE FACS also helps animators make characters come to life.
  8. Turns you into a human lie detector.” MOSTLY FALSE Multitudes of studies collected by numerous behavioral scientists over the years have demonstrated conclusively that humans are poor lie detectors. No one single facial action unit is a reliable indicator of deceit. However, the astute observer will look for a cluster of micro-expressions surrounding a stimulus, a possible indicator of deception.
  9. “It’s being taught at the FBI and CIA.” TRUE FACS has been used by local police, the military, TSA, CIA, and the FBI.
  10. The CD-ROM is sold over the Internet.” MOSTLY TRUE. Back when this episode aired it was available via CD-ROM. Today, you can obtain the FACS manual online (

So, how did Law and Order SVU do? I’d give them an A. They took a complicated subject and boiled it down to its essence for a quick and accurate portrayal of FACS. It is good to watch TV get it right, at least from this perspective and confirms my training on the subject.

We teach micro-expression detection and look for them in our research studies. We can tell who is engaged or comfortable and who isn’t. For those who are not engaged or uncomfortable, we can intensify our efforts to draw them out with stimuli such as refreshments, new content, or a change in topic.

Contact us today to see how we can help you or your organization become proficient at finding out what people are really thinking when they communicate with you.

Most Communication is Nonverbal. Are You Fluent?




[2] FACS Investigator’s Guide, 1978. Paul Ekman, Wallace V. Friesen, Joseph C. Hager, Salt Lake City, UT p. 3.

[3] Young,G., & Decarie, .T G. An ethology-based catalogue of facial/vocalbehaviorsinfancy. Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.)., 1974.