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The truth is on our faces: Former Army psychologist trains troops to spot lies through microexpressions

Feb. 17, 2011 - 02:53PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 17, 2011 - 02:53PM  |  
A person's microexpressions can tip you off to whether he or she is telling you the truth.
A person's microexpressions can tip you off to whether he or she is telling you the truth. (THE PAUL EKMAN GROUP)

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You look up from your cards and over at that huge pile of chips. It's just you and him now. That's a sweet straight in your hand, but he just keeps raising the stakes.

Is he bluffing? His face is placid, but his eyes are drilling into you.

Oh, there it is. Call and lay your cards down. The pot is yours.

No, it wasn't when he looked away; it was that quick flash on his face when his eyebrows rose and drew together. It was just a fraction of a second, but to the well-trained eye there was no mistaking it: Fear.

They're called microexpressions. If that sounds familiar, you've probably watched "Lie to Me" on Fox. Like any TV drama, the show can play fast and loose with facts. But it's based on the real science of former Army psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, the show's science adviser, who writes a blog separating fact from fiction.

"Overall, the show gets it right about 80 percent of the time," Ekman says.

In the show, Cal Lightman, played by Tim Roth, helps the FBI solve some of its trickiest cases.

In real life, Ekman and his Paul Ekman Group regularly consult for an alphabet soup of defense, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Ekman was named one of Time magazine's top 100 most influential people of 2009, and his books are now required reading at the U.S. Military Academy.

It's no surprise that his techniques have found their way into the war zones.

"I did some work with one of the agencies within the Defense Department that doesn't want its name mentioned, and one of their full-time people spent six months in Afghanistan with Special Forces," Ekman says. "He trained them with my microexpressions training tool and how to use it when interrogating survivors after a firefight about where weapons were. He told me it was extremely successful."

‘Othello's error'

Studies say we bear false witness — from white lies to the more egregious variety — all the time. Some research suggests that the old joke about how you can tell if a politician is lying (if his lips are moving) may be true of all of us. One study discovered that six out of 10 people lie two or three times in every 10 minutes of conversation.

The reasons we lie are legion, Ekman says. Some may seem noble, like loyalty to friends or protecting others' feelings ("No, your butt doesn't look big in those jeans"), but usually they're more selfish. The most common: To avoid punishment or consequences ("I did not have sex with that woman") and to get something ("I'm with the band").

However, the biggest danger in trying to detect lies is assuming that someone is deceiving when he is not.

Ekman calls this "Othello's error." In Shakespeare's classic, Othello mistakes the look of fear on his wife's face for proof of her infidelity, when, in fact, she was afraid Othello would not trust her.

It can be an easy mistake for anyone to make, but especially for people learning to divine microexpressions.

Written on our faces

The science of microexpressions is about paying attention to emotions we see and feel every day. Regardless of culture or geography, most emotions — and the looks they broadcast across our faces — are universal. Liars often will try to hide those emotions, but when the stakes are high, the truth can leak out in expressions that flash across the face in less than one-fifth of a second, Ekman says.

Those leakages are microexpressions.

Spotting them is a relatively easy skill to teach, Ekman says, but it can be hard to master. Micros don't necessarily mean someone is lying, but they do provide clues that the person is trying to hide something. So that brief flash of sadness could just mean he's trying to shield you from anxiety about a pending inspection — or it could be a sign of regret for any number of transgressions.

There's no single giveaway that someone is lying, Ekman says. Look for a confluence of clues, usually contradictions between what someone is telling you and the unconscious signals their face, body, words and speech send off.

Face

Microexpressions: These universal facial expressions will flash across someone's face when they're trying to hide something. They're fast, so it takes a trained eye to spot them.

Body

Body language is more than just how we position ourselves; it can also be actual signs and symbols, like a thumbs up or an A-OK. Ekman calls them "symbolic gestures," and every culture has them. Usually they're intentional, but like microexpressions, we can let them slip when we're trying to hide something.

"After facial expressions, gestures that contradict what someone is saying are the most important clue that someone may be lying," Ekman says. They're usually just a momentary fragment of the gesture, but they can reveal the truth. For example:

Nodding no when saying yes. A slight head shake "no" when verbally saying "yes" is the most clear-cut symbolic gesture, Ekman says. "So far, we have never been wrong in saying the person is lying when that happens."

The shrug. When someone says they're sure of something but displays a momentary shrug — the slight lifting of one shoulder, or the slight rotation of one hand — the movement can show that they're really not so sure.

"The finger." Unless you're paying attention, you may not even realize someone just flipped you the bird. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was known to do it during news conferences.

Words

What the lips are saying — or not saying — can provide clues to an individual's truthfulness:

Slip of the tongue: An out-of-place word — an "I" slipping in when someone had been talking about another person, for example — can be an indicator of deception.

Distancing language: A little verbal distance between the speaker and the person being named. One example: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

False inference dodge: Giving an indirect answer to a question ("I'm not going to dignify that with an answer") or answering a question with a question ("How could you even ask that?").

Speech

Listen to how people say things as well as what they're saying. Changes in inflection and disconnects between the words spoken and how they're said reveal clues.

Pitch: For most people, voice pitch goes up when they're afraid or upset. That doesn't necessarily mean they're being deceitful, but it can be a sign. Someone on the phone telling you they're sad? There's a discernable difference in someone's voice when they're actually smiling.

Pauses: Frequent pauses — or ones that seem to last too long — are a good indicator something is up, particularly in response to questions. Frequent "ahhs" and "uhhs" can be clues to deception.

Soft voice: Ekman's research has found that a shift to a softer voice suggests that the person is lying.

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