Microexpressions and Real-Life
It happens almost weekly; I’ll tell someone that I specialize in deception detection and behavior analysis, and I’m instantaneously asked if I’ve seen the show on Fox called ‘Lie to Me’. I purse my lips (which is a nonverbal signal for withheld opinions), take a deep breath and listen to how this person became an expert in microexpressions from watching the show and doing some microexpression exercise they found on Google.
Let’s talk about microexpressions.
These are expressions of emotion that occur on the face at a speed of about 1/25th of a second before they vanish. Two guys in 1966 named Haggard and Isaacs were studying long, boring videos of therapists and their patients when they noticed what they called “micro-momentary” expressions. It was also later studied and brought into the public eye in 1969 by Paul Ekman in the book ‘Telling Lies’.
In order to recognize a microexpression, one must possess uncanny ability to read the facial expressions as fast as a computer and also completely lose focus on the body while doing so. Not only does analyzing microexpressions take a lot of practice, the most recognized experts on this planet require video recording playback to be able to do so.
Some parts of our bodies can be much more easily controlled than others. The easiest body parts to manipulate and lie with are those that we commonly use to signal our emotions in our day to day lives. Human beings are most aware of our facial expressions to one another. As a rule of thumb in behavior analysis, the further a body part is from the head, the harder it is to control during periods of anxiety and uncertainty. We communicate with our faces most and have by far, the greatest amount of practice lying and deceiving with our faces.
THERE IS NO MICROEXPRESSION FOR DECEPTION
While microexpressions can provide us with an emotional flavor to what would have otherwise been unknown, not a single microexpression is indicative of deception. You can see in the show how the main character sneers and looks troublesomely at the suspect’s face and makes the proclamation that he’s lying.
Three former National Security and CIA investigators recently published one of my new favorite books. It’s called ‘Spy the Lie’, and it’s by far the most breathtakingly realistic and pragmatic approach to deception detection I’ve seen in any book, in any store, in any town…. No, seriously, it’s awesome.
In the book, Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, Susan Carnicero and Don Tennant have the following to say about microexpressions:
“Unless you are very highly trained and are able to develop the uncanny sharpness and focus that would enable you to spot a facial movement that lasts a fraction of a second, it’s not a pragmatic tool to reach for in a typical, real-time encounter. So the Lightman-esque routine of staring into someone’s face and determining that the person is lying makes for good TV, but that’s where it’s best left.
We would put microexpressions in a category of behaviors that have come to be widely viewed as reliable indicators of deception, but that we in our experience have found to more typically be quite unreliable in real situations.”
Here’s the book if you’re interested: Click Here
While it may be great for video analysis in a back room, microexpressions are no more useful than a magic 8 ball for deception detection in real-world scenarios.
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