Category Archives: Facial microexpressions

The Impact of Lie to Me on Viewers’ Actual Ability to Detect Deception


Timothy R. Levine, Kim B. Serota, Hillary C. Shulman (in press). The Impact of Lie to Me on Viewers’ Actual Ability to Detect Deception Communication Research first published on June 17, 2010 doi:10.1177/0093650210362686

The new television series Lie to Me portrays a social scientist solving crimes through his ability to read nonverbal communication. Promotional materials claim the content is based on actual science. Participants (N = 108) watched an episode of Lie to Me, a different drama, or no program and then judged a series of honest and deceptive interviews. Lie to Me viewers were no better at distinguishing truths from lies but were more likely than control participants to misidentify honest interviewees as deceptive. Watching Lie to Me decreases truth bias thereby increasing suspicion of others while at the same time reducing deception detection ability.

Hat tip to Karen Franklin.

Facial expressions and verbal cues to deception

Hat tip to Neuroethics and Law blog for pointing us towards an article in New Scientist (17 Sept) about lies and spin in the current US Presidential campaign.

NS briefly touches on Paul Ekman’s work on microfacial expressions before devoting more attention to the work of David Skillicorn:

Skillicorn has been watching out for verbal “spin”. He has developed an algorithm that evaluates word usage within the text of a conversation or speech to determine when a person “presents themselves or their content in a way that does not necessarily reflect what they know to be true”.

NS then turns to Branka Zei Pollermann, who combines voice and facial analysis:

“The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed,” says Pollermann… [who] uses auditory analysis software to map seven parameters of a person’s speech, including pitch modulation, volume and fluency, to create a voice profile. She then compares that profile with the speaker’s facial expressions, using as a guide a set of facial expressions mapped out by Ekman, called the Facial Action Coding System, to develop an overall picture of how they express themselves.

This story prompted quite a flurry of comments on the website (some of which are worth reading!).

Skillicorn has posted more about his research and its theoretical basis (James Pennebaker’s LIWC techniquepdf here) at his blog Finding Bad Guys in Data.

NPR on lie detection

Hat tip to (a great blog associated with the American Journal of Bioethics):

This past week NPR’s Morning Edition carried a three-part series about lie detection reported by Dina Temple-Raston. (The segments are posted as both audio and text, so they’re easy to scan if you can’t listen.) The series covers the questionable accuracy of polygraphs, the emerging field of lie detection by fMRI, and the examination of facial “micro expressions” for hints of lies.

Head over to for some commentary, or go straight to the NPR site for more details.

Microexpressions and deception detection

truthsignA Newsweek article (16 Aug) on TSA behaviour detection officers in airports and their training in spotting microexpressions stirred up some blog commentary. Reporter Patti Davis commented:

In the study of “micro-expressions”—yes, it is actually a field of study and there are some who are arrogant enough to call it a science—it has been decided that when people wish to conceal emotions, the truth of their feelings is revealed in facial flashes. These experts have determined that fear and disgust are the key things to look for because they can hint of deception…. Let’s see, fear and disgust in an airport? I’m frightened and disgusted weeks before I have to show up at an airport.

Eyes for Lies rightly takes Davis to task for contradicting herself: It’s not about spotting people who have emotional expressions that are consistent with experience at an airport. If you have a genuine fear of flying or disgust at the state of the washrooms, for instance, in most cases you won’t show microexpressions because in most cases you won’t be actively trying to conceal these emotions. Instead, EfL says, “Someone who sees microexpressions will be looking for the guy who is showing inconsistencies in emotions and behavior. For example, he will look for a guy who is acting jovial, yet strangely preoccupied and flashes an expression of disgust or fear across his face simultaneously.”

However, as Mind Hacks points out, published research that supports the notion that the ability to spot microexpressions is associated with the ability to detect deception is limited.

Dr X links to the piece and reminds us of Paul Ekman’s notion of ‘duper’s delight’ – the sheer pleasure that some people get out of fooling others.

Want to see some microexpressions for yourself? See Paul Ekman discussing microexpressions, together with a classic example, on YouTube. And if you’d like to test your ability to spot them, try your luck here.

Photo credit: jacampos, Creative Commons License

More on microexpressions

Those of you interested in Paul Ekman’s article on behavioural profiling at Logan Airport can read more about his work on microexpressions in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind (October 2006).

As soon as we observe another person, we try to read his or her face for signs of happiness, sorrow, anxiety, anger. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong, and errors can create some sticky personal situations. Yet Paul Ekman is almost always right. The psychology professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, has spent 40 years studying human facial expressions. He has catalogued more than 10,000 possible combinations of facial muscle movements that reveal what a person is feeling inside. And he has taught himself how to catch the fleeting involuntary changes, called microexpressions, that flit across even the best liar’s face, exposing the truth behind what he or she is trying to hide.

This article is free to view, though another in the same issue, Exposing Lies, is behind a paywall.

Time Magazine wonders how to spot a liar

A lengthy piece in last week’s Time Magazine (20 August) rakes over familiar ground:

[…] In the post-9/11 world, where anyone with a boarding pass and a piece of carry-on is a potential menace, the need is greater than ever for law enforcement’s most elusive dream: a simple technique that can expose a liar as dependably as a blood test can identify DNA or a Breathalyzer can nail a drunk. Quietly over the past five years, Department of Defense agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have dramatically stepped up the hunt. Though the exact figures are concealed in the classified “black budget,” tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars are believed to have been poured into lie-detection techniques as diverse as infrared imagers to study the eyes, scanners to peer into the brain, sensors to spot liars from a distance, and analysts trained to scrutinize the unconscious facial flutters that often accompany a falsehood.

The article goes on to discuss research on deception using fMRI, electroencephalograms, eye scans and microexpressions. They conclude:

For now, the new lie-detection techniques are likely to remain in the same ambiguous ethical holding area as so many other privacy issues in the twitchy post-9/11 years. We’ll give up a lot to keep our cities, airplanes and children safe. But it’s hard to say in the abstract when “a lot” becomes “too much.” We can only hope that we’ll recognize it when it happens.

Lying is exposed by micro-expressions we can’t control

Mark Frank moved up to the University of Buffalo last year to continue the deception research he had been doing at Rutgers. Now Buffalo has issued a press release (5 May) highlighting some of the interesting facets of Frank’s research. Much of Frank’s research continues the pioneering work of Paul Ekman (Frank’s former teacher and ongoing collaborator) on identifying facial microexpressions of emotion:

[…Frank’s] revolutionary research on human facial expressions in situations of high stakes deception debunks myths that have permeated police and security training for decades. His work has come to be recognized by security officials in the U.S. and abroad as very useful tool in the identification and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

[…] “Fleeting facial expressions are expressed by minute and unconscious movements of facial muscles like the frontalis, corregator and risorius,” Frank says, “and these micro-movements, when provoked by underlying emotions, are almost impossible for us to control.”

But Frank doesn’t think that understanding microexpressions are the ‘silver bullet’ for deception detection:

“I want to make it clear that one micro-expression or collection of them is not proof of anything,” Frank says. “They have meaning only in the context of other behavioral cues, and even then are not an indictment of an individual, just very good clues.”


  • Link to press release from Buffalo
  • Link to more on Frank’s work (hosted at Rutgers)
  • Link to New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about facial microexpressions (thank you to the Thinking Meat blog for reminding me of this!)
  • Link to more on facial expressions
  • Link to news item on Mark Frank’s work with TSA

Face expert’s ability to see deception has him in demand

USA Today 20 July 2005

Paul Ekman can spot a phony. The retired psychologist, 71, is known around the world for his research on facial expressions and for his ability to carefully monitor expressions, body language, gestures and voice. He has analyzed 42 facial muscles that can produce more than 10,000 expressions. He has found that seven basic emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise – have clear facial signals. He has coined the term “micro-expressions” to describe ultra-quick facial movements that signal underlying emotions. Though barely noticeable, these expressions are key to determining whether someone is lying. That ability to detect deception – whether in a cheating spouse or a suspected terrorist – has Ekman in demand these days. As security becomes an everyday concern in American society, Ekman, who spent more than 40 years at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, is teaching his skills to security professionals, including those at federal agencies in Washington, D.C.

Microfacial expressions

A psychologist claims to have identified fleeting facial expressions that give liars away
Boston Globe, January 30, 2005

When an informant tells you that six people he knows are planning on detonating a dirty bomb in Boston, should you believe him? That is no hypothetical question – which is why psychologists who study lie detection, like Paul Ekman, a retired psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, are getting more calls from the government than they used to.[…] So where does the science of lie detection stand? Does Ekman – or anyone – have the goods? […] Ekman himself claims to have absorbed, to the tune of 80 percent accuracy, how to spot micro-expression tip-offs. But critics say his papers describe his techniques only vaguely and offer no advice on whether an angry curl of the lip represents guilt at being caught or righteous anger at being doubted. […]