Fleeting expressions can reveal hidden emotions or deception.
Sometimes it’s not obvious what your boss is thinking, and you feel uneasy. Or maybe you suspect your teen is lying to you but can’t pinpoint what’s making you suspicious. It’s possible that you’re catching “micro-expressions” that come and go in a flash on people’s faces just beyond your conscious awareness — and theirs.
Detecting lies isn’t simple. Even judges, therapists, and spies do no better than chance when asked to identify liars on videotape. No one sign — even “shifty eyes” — is reliable. Instead, you need to see inconsistencies in facial expressions, including micro-expressions, and interpret them, says psychologist Paul Ekman.
In the 1970s, Ekman developed a numbering technique — the Facial Action Coding System — for the movements of facial muscles. Narrowed lips are 23; a tightened lip corner is 14. While recording these movements, he observed expressions that crossed the face in as little as a 20th of a second. In a separate study, researchers videotaped participants while they looked at emotionally provocative photos and concluded that nearly 22 percent made micro-expressions; the movements tended to occur only in the top or the bottom of the face, rather than both.
Guessing that these moments betrayed hidden emotions, Ekman sought out stars in law enforcement to see if they were better at catching these expressions consciously. While working as a Texas Ranger, David Maxwell, one of Ekman’s stars, had seen a murderer show micro-expressions of happiness while professing grief. The murderer was lying. But micro-expressions can also pop up when people aren’t lying. Let’s say the wife of a murdered man is talking calmly about the case and flashes a micro-expression of happiness while remembering her honeymoon. The expression is only a clue to ask more questions, Maxwell says.
There’s some evidence that, with training, people can see more and respond more accurately to others. When medical residents were trained to notice minute facial expressions, one study found, patients rated them higher on empathy. Department store employees have been taught to catch micro-expressions. People with schizophrenia have improved their skill at reading others after training. You can also become more conscious of your own emotions, says Ekman, author of “Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.” He offers one-hour online videos that teach viewers to catch micro-expressions and also subtle expressions that last longer — the slight wrinkling of the nose, an upturn of the mouth, or lifted eyebrows. The videos also teach how to interpret what emotion an expression reveals: anger, surprise, fear, sadness, contempt, disgust, or happiness.
Before you start questioning your boss or accusing your teen, be aware of a number of myths about lying.
People don’t actually fidget and look away when they’re lying. You may have heard that liars blink less, pause more, avoid eye contact, raise their chins, look nervous, or show dilated pupils. None of those are reliable signs in all people. Socially nervous people can look like they’re lying when they’re just nervous. You also may be wrong if you think that because you know someone well, you’ll be better at catching his lies. We tend to rely on a history of trust.
However, the advice to trust your gut is reasonable. Some research does back up the idea that we pick up lies unconsciously. In one study, researchers had 72 participants watch videos of “suspects” in a mock-crime interview, some of whom were lying. In a test of unconscious associations, the participants were more likely to associate the liars with words like “untruthful” and “dishonest.” But when asked directly, they picked out the liars only 43 percent of the time, less than by chance.
June 19, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA