Whoever you are and whatever you do, decades of research by Paul Ekman suggests you do no better than chance at catching lies.
Recent research by an independent scientist showed that those who used Paul Ekman’s emotion training tools – the kind I use in my classes for lawyers and negotiators – did better at catching lies.
My specialty is negotiation. For me, that means getting what you want. And getting what you want often depends on information, emotional management, and creativity. So you really want to know if you’ve got the kind of emotions that will help you and others reach a deal that benefits you. That’s why emotion recognition matters even if you don’t get better
Sometimes you really do: when I was an associate independent counsel, that was a key part of our job. Did White House officials lie about searching Bill Clinton’s passport files? If they lied, the lie itself was a crime.
Let’s start with Paul Ekman’s definition. Paul Ekman is the inspiration behind Fox’s Lie to Me and its scientific advisor. That picture where “Dr. Lightman” is looking at facial expressions in a faraway land: that’s Paul Ekman’s body and a real photo with actor Tim Roth’s face!
Paul Ekman defines a lie as: “one person intends to mislead another . . . deliberately. . . .” This definition excludes times when you, the victim, might not get the truth, but the other person didn’t intend to keep information from you.”
Ekman also limits the definition by saying that lies aren’t lies when someone has permission to mislead another, such as actors in a play.
So, whether I want to catch lies or get at the truth, how do I do it?
There are several different ways people have tried. Many of these ways simply don’t work.
There are three kinds of methods that seem to work.
One set of methods depends on working with clues that scientific study suggests makes it more likely that a person is lying. Notice that I say more likely. As Paul Ekman teaches, it is Pinocchio’s error to think that there is any clue that always means that someone is lying.
In Paul Ekman’s work, he has identified the clues that show up most often when people lie. The number one clue involves very fast changes in the face. These changes reveal concealed emotions. Seven basic emotions each tend to trigger certain sets of muscles in the face. So, the upturned lips and the pushed up cheeks (which make the crow’s feat) reveal a felt smile. (Without that eye movement, you have a felt smile, but no real enjoyment).
Paul Ekman developed an elaborate research method to identify every set of facial movements. He called this the Facial Action Coding System. If you’re really interested, you can learn it from Paul’s manual, a self-study guide with many videos. Or, like me, you can learn in a week long class with Erika Rosenberg, a co-author of the latest book by Paul Ekman on facial expressions and another scientific advisor to Fox’s Lie to Me.
Microexpressions are full expressions of emotion that happen quickly. They happen as fast as one frame of video – 1/30 of a second. The theory: the emotional part of the brain automatically triggers the facial muscles, but the controlling part of the brain clamps down to mask them.
Subtle expressions are slower but only trigger some muscles associated with an emotion. For example, you might just notice the lower lip roll under in a subtle sign of anger.
The other sets of clues to deception include body movement, verbal style, voice, and verbal content. I also teach about these clues in my workshops on lie detection.
If you only have an hour, invest in Paul Ekman’s microexpression training tool. in If you have two hours, invest in the subtle expression training tool. You should also read Paul Ekman’s two popular books, Telling Lies and Emotions Revealed.
But, if you really want to learn, there’s no substitute for a live training. At a live training, you get the full version of the best scientific method: Identify clues, consider hypotheses for the clues, test out the hypotheses. For example, if you’re a lawyer and you ask someone about drug use in a deposition, you may see a sign of sadness. That’s step one. But why is the person sad? You might think they are sad about wasting their lives on drugs. But it might be that the person lost a loved one to drug use. In the third step, you try to get at that information. And that third step is its own science and art: how to ask?
And, if you’re a negotiator, you may just need to know the true feeling. In one picture from my study at Harvard of real estate negotiations, a student said she was confident but showed fear on her face in less than a second. That’s good to know: she might be willing to move way down off her asking price.