The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

In short, I sucked up.
And pay dirt came my way, thick and fast.
Ekman introduced me to J.J. Newberry, a recently retired agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Newberry, a gregarious man who teaches interrogation classes at Los Medanos College in Pittsburgh, hopes to spin his association with Ekman into a worldwide chain of institutes teaching "Analytic Interviewing." After sipping coffee with me for an hour in the lobby of the Concord Sheraton, Newberry, without provocation, invited me to attend a weeklong interrogation class. Ekman had suggested to him that the resulting publicity might earn research grants, he later revealed.

"Another easy mark," I thought. And I set about my work. I sent J.J. letters, articles. I bought him dinner. We had drinks. The stage seemed set.

Dr. Paul Ekman's study looks just as one would want the work space of a serious academic to appear. There are so many books, folders, and loose articles bulging from the shelves that the room seems on the verge of chaos. In the spaces not claimed by literature, there are photographs of contorted male and female faces -- grimaces of pain, stares of rage, gasps of alarm. These faces are illustrations from the original version of Charles Darwin's Expressions, the founding text for a branch of science that studies the possibility of a hard-wired connection between our emotions and our facial muscles.

The photographs -- and the feelings they connote -- are at the root of Ekman's work with police officers. By advancing and refining Darwin's theory -- which says that one can read the hearts of animals and men through their faces -- Ekman has taught law enforcement officers to give special attention to the subtle secrets present in every visage.

According to Darwin, the common origins of all species means that humans share with the lower animals unconscious links between feelings and facial expressions. A dog bares its teeth when angry. A human does the same (in which case it's called a grimace or a sneer). An injured beast writhes in pain; humans "closely compress" their mouths, clench their teeth, the eyes "stare wildly as in horrified astonishment, or the brows are heavily contracted. Perspiration bathes the body, and drops trickle down the face," Darwin writes.

The emotions, and their corresponding facial expressions, are, Darwin asserts, the result of distinct neural systems that have helped us survive, and were therefore passed down to the present through natural selection. A sufficiently fierce glare can prevent an unfortunate (and possibly lethal) fight, among either dogs or higher animals. And Ekman has a logical extension of the theory: Because they emanate from circuits of our nervous system that were formed deep in pre-history, certain expressions -- those depicting happiness, sadness, alarm, and anger -- are universal among peoples.

Ekman says he didn't believe Darwin's theories on emotion-expression links when he first became a psychologist during the 1950s. Cultural relativism was the order of the day, and Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Somoa had recently become the greatest-selling academic work of all time. Many social scientists and psychologists took it as revealed truth that nurture was more important than nature in explaining most complex human behavior.

But Ekman put his doubt to the test, examining people's facial expressions in Argentina, China, Estonia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Papua New Guinea. The result: These facial expressions are the same the world over, just as Darwin's work had predicted. Ekman would take his findings about the universal link between emotions and facial expressions and use it to study one of the most emotional of human undertakings: telling lies.

The study began when therapists that Ekman was teaching told him they needed a reliable way to tell whether an emotionally distraught person was considering suicide. Often, suicidal patients would claim to be well, hoping they would be freed from psychiatric institutions -- and, therefore, free to kill themselves.

Ekman and his students studied a film made of a suicidal patient named Mary, who appeared to be recovering her spirits. In an interview Ekman filmed, Mary told her doctor how much better she felt, and asked for a weekend pass. Before she received the pass, Mary admitted she had lied.

Upon reviewing the film, Ekman discovered that Mary's face twitched into a fleeting expression of despair just as her doctor asked about her plans for the future. This momentary facial expression was a potential master key to unlocking people's lies, Ekman was to later conclude. These micro-expressions were the initial manifestations of an involuntary nervous response. Wily humans do better than lower animals in covering the evidence of their lies. Humans smile, they paint on a poker face, they feign an emotion that is not their own. But in the case of high-stakes lies, Ekman determined, Darwin's hard-wiring gets the better of them.

To prove his hunch, Ekman devised a series of experiments in which college students could earn $50 if they successfully lied. Reviewing films of these videotapes, Ekman discovered more micro-expressions. True emotions leaked through in the form of furrowed brows, strained necks, or false smiles. Liars sometimes shrugged their shoulders, paused too long, blinked; or had expressions that emerged unevenly across their faces. None of these perturbations are in and of themselves signs of lying, Ekman explains. They are merely signs of emotion flitting across the face. The trick to perceiving a lie is discovering when a person's emotions do not match what is being said.

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