Sunday, February 21, 2016

How well can you read people?

Can you tell these emotions apart from each other?


Or how about these? 



As you are probably realizing right about now, it is not as easy to read faces as we like to think. Certain expressions can look a lot alike, and most of these expressions often don't show very long. It is hard to read the truth off of someone's face. And even more difficult to determine whether we are indeed being told the truth or not.


Did you know...
  • Everyone lies at least once or twice a day? 
  • In a recent study 56% of average Americans believe they get away with it. 
  • People usually lie when they're in a time crunch
  • Two years olds can deliberately lie
  • There is no accurate lie detector test
  • Extroverts lie more than introverts
  • Men typically lie more often than women
  • More than 82% of lies go unnoticed by us
  • We can only tell truth from lie half of the time, 54% to be exact
Have you ever seen the show 'Lie te Me'? If not, I recommend you watch it. Sucks you right in. The concept is that Dr. Lightman, a self established lie-guru, can determine by a simple conversation whether or not you are lying by reading your facial expressions. Lightman is presented as a human lie detector.

The interesting thing about this show? It is based on real life science! Meet Dr. Paul Ekman, the real life Dr. Lightman and brain behind the science the show is based on. After watching the show I felt so intrigued by the concept of recognizing lies that I dug into the subject. 
This picture portrayes Dr. Paul Ekman with Tim Roth who plays the main character in the show Lie to Me, which is based on Ekmans science of micro expressions.

What exactly does it take to turn yourself into a human lie detector you ask? Well... It is not as easy as it sounds. Dr. Paul Ekman has spent most of his life doing research on the matter. One of the key elements in lie detection according to Ekman, is recognizing so called micro expressions. A microexpression is a very brief display of an expression, typically lasting only a fraction of a second (.5 of a second) 
These microexpressions happen when someone is trying to hide an emotion and their face briefly shows a subconscious display of that emotion. Ekman recognizes seven main emotions with universal signs of display;
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Happiness

As a social worker, I recognize that Ekmans micro expressions are not the end all- be all of non verbal communication. There is much more to detecting lies and recognizing emotions than looking at people's facial expressions, for example body language. However, I think that looking into facial expressions can be particularly helpful to those of us who work with people on a daily basis. I can think of many fields where it would be an addition to have professionals study and learn about this aspect of non verbal communication. Police officers for example, might be helped knowing how to read people and situations to analyze danger. Or clinical social workers who work with suicidal clients. Prison guards, teachers, judges, military, negotiators etc. 
what I am getting at is that combining the knowledge of micro expression with body language analysis etc would make for a more complete picture of a person or client, which could make a huge difference for those who make life or death decisions. 
Because ultimately what they help to do, is gather more information. In general, it is not just important to determine if a person is lying or not. What matters is getting the complete story. Body language combined with facial expression analysis can tell show a bigger picture and help answer the more important question of why someone is lying. 

Now, let's look at the seven major expressions and emotions Ekman uses in his studies.


Anger; an emotion characterized by a strong feeling of antagonism towards a person or object that you feel has deliberately done you wrong. Becomes visible in body language through for example; clenched jaws, compressed lips, tensed or balled fists or crossed arms, rapid breathing, intense glare, rigid posture, shaking. Anger often shows through aggressive behavior, however sometimes it can also be expressed through defensiveness or withdrawal. 


Fear; an emotion characterized by the belief that there is reason to be afraid of something or someone that could cause them harm, pain, danger and or threat. Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger and shows in body language by voice tremors, sweating, figetting, gasping and holding breath, visible raised pulse and or tensed movement (fight or flight response). Fear happens when basic needs are threatened. Can also be described and displayed as anxiety and nervousness. 



Sadness; an emotion showing, expressing and feeling sorrow or unhappiness. Can be described as heavyheartedness. Shows in body language as slower movements, self holding/hugging, downcast looks, slowed breathing, slumped or slouching posture, monotonous speech (mumbling), unfocused gaze, drooping eyes and tears. Be mindful that sadness and depression are not the same. Sadness is a healthy emotion if moved through and not lingered in. 



Disgust; a feeling of revulsion, distaste or disapproval caused by someone or something offensive or unpleasant. You can recognize disgust by these signs; eyebrows pulled together, top lip raised, nose wrinkled, physical distancing, body oriented away from speaker. If by any chance you recognize this expression in your partner or spouse, you might have a problem. 


Contempt; a feeling of disdain or disrespect, that a person or object is considered beneath, worthless or deserving of scorn. Contempt is most easily recognized in assymetrical gestures and expressions, for example a half smile on either side of the face, that does not reach the eyes. Also look for frowning, shrugging and closed body gestures.



Surprise; a feeling of shock or astonishment over an unexpected event, fact or thing. Surprise can be recognized in a person by widened eyes, raised eyebrows, open mouth, sudden backward motion, sometimes even a slight jump. Surprise often only shows very briefly and is replaced with other emotions. 



Happiness; a state of well being or contentment (not to be confused with contempt), often caused and or accompanied by a pleasurable or satisfying experience. We see happiness by smiles that reach the eyes, eyelids crinkle, eyes sometimes narrow, lip corners curl upward, open body movements, relaxation of muscles. Happiness is said to be reached when goals or needs are met. 

Now that we have looked at these seven emotions and examined how they are expressed most commonly, we might not necessarily have turned into lie detectors as much... But it might just make it easier for us to read how the people surrounding us are truly feeling. Emotions can be very strong. I am not trying to get you to stare at your significant others face for minutes to determine wether you are being cheated on or not. Neither am I trying to ruin your surprise birthday party for you. However, if I can help you be more mindful of little lies, such as 'no really, I'm fine', I will always take that opportunity. Because by recognizing these emotions and micro expressions we can hopefully acknowledge a simple lie like that. Not to expose it, but to be more compassionate and empathetic. So we don't just give up and let it be, but ask questions. To discover the truth. To care. 

For those of you who were afraid I'd leave you hanging, here is Paul Ekman's chart of emotions.