I admit it: I am completely addicted to Lie to Me. Watch just one show, and I swear you’ll be scanning your dates, coworkers and neighbors for flashes of twitchy eyebrows, erratic blinks and one-shouldered shrugs.
Tim Roth stars as Dr. Cal Lightman — the world’s leading expert on deception. Dr, Lightman and his team study facial expressions and involuntary body language to discern when someone is lying, and why.
A Micro Expression
The show is based on the real-life scientific discoveries of Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus at University of California, San Francisco and renowned expert in lie detection. How does he spot the lies? Our faces leak split-second expressions that reveal our true feelings.
According to Dr. Ekman, “A micro expression is a facial expression, usually about a 25th of a second, that is always a concealed emotion.” A recent article in Popular Mechanics stated, “Ekman’s research indicates that our facial expressions are innate, universal, and nearly impossible to conceal.”
Ekman tells me, “Sometimes it’s an emotion they know they’re feeling and are deliberately trying to hide — it could be embarrassment or something more sinister.”
When Ekman first met his current wife he had been married before. He debated whether or not to tell her about his past. “If she’d seen my micro expression, she would have seen concealed signs of fear on my face.”
Was he concealing his past with intent to harm her? No, it was fear that his future wife might reject him “in the first five minutes.”
Ekman opted to be honest and tell her about his past right away. Turns out it was a good decision, they’ve been happily married for 30 years.
Try as we might, we can’t fully conceal our guilt, shame, anger, happiness, disgust, fear, or other emotions. But what microexpressions don’t reveal is why someone is having those feelings. “No emotion tells you its source,” says Ekman.
And if you can’t conceal a microexpression, neither can you fake one, he adds.
That’s right, everything you need to know about your date is written all over his or her face. You just have to know where to look.
Or rather, you have to know how to spot those split-second grimaces and figure out whether they mean contempt, anxiety or just a bad cheeseburger.
To the untrained eye, they are virtually impossible to spot, but we can learn to read them, quite quickly apparently — in about an hour, according to Ekman.
The Disadvantages of Reading Faces
Do you really want to know every single thing your date is feeling?
“Romance is in part an illusion you don’t want to destroy,” Ekman says and the ability to read micro expressions is a mixed blessing. “Once you learn it, you can’t turn it off. You will always recognize concealed emotions. You will be a privacy invader. You’ll see things people won’t know you’re seeing.”
Ekman and his research partner Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan, professor at the University of San Francisco (the character of Dr. Gillian Foster, played by Kelli Williams, is based on her) have found that a very small percentage of people (less than one per cent) are natural-born lie detectors and can detect deceit without any formal training. They refer to these naturals as “Wizards.”
One of these “Wizards” blogs about her experiences as a human lie detector but prefers to remain anonymous, referring to herself only as Eyes for Lies in our email correspondence. She says that when it comes to online dating, “Photographs contain a wealth of information because we express emotions in them.
“If you see a photograph of a person expressing arrogance, I, personally, would be concerned. Arrogant behavior is a tip-off that the person is more likely to be deceptive (though not all arrogant people lie.) Arrogance is a feigned confidence, and when people fake things, it’s a good indication they are likely to deceive. On the contrary, people who are humble are the least likely to be deceptive in my experience.”
How to Spot Inconsistencies
Interestingly, Eyes for Lies says that in her experience, “There are no tell-tale clues that someone is lying. For every trait that someone says is exclusive to liars, I can identify a truth-teller doing the exact same behavior. As someone who is above-average in spotting lies, I can tell you deception detection, for me, is not about spotting clues. It’s all about spotting inconsistencies.”
Ekman’s partner O’Sullivan tells me, “It’s not merely seeing the behavior and recognizing it but in interpreting the situation”
In other words, while you’re scanning your date for the usual emotions someone might associate with lying — micro expressions of guilt or fear — you might be missing something bigger.
Your date might not feel guilty at all about lying to get you into bed. In fact, he might be concealing pride or cockiness at his ability to deceive you.
O’Sullivan quips, “No surprise they call it ‘cocky.’”
According to Eyes for Lies, “The best way to identify a liar is to trust the inconsistencies that pop up. If someone’s behavior is inconsistent, or if the details they give you don’t add up, trust it, and do some fact-checking.
“Oftentimes, people see deception, but they don’t want to trust what they saw because it is emotionally painful, so they deny the truth or excuse it.”
Other signs to watch for? Contradictions in what people say versus what they do (saying no, while nodding yes). Also, watch for insincere emotions (the fake smile) or acting in a way that is contrary to their usual personality (a usually stoic person who’s excited or a usually anxious person who suddenly seems calm).
Also be on the lookout for a bad case of TMI. When someone tells a story with too much detail it can mean they’ve put a lot of thought into getting out of a situation and come up with a complicated lie (“I went to the car wash because Frank from work’s cat vomited in my car, and a man dressed in a hotdog suit carrying three blue snow cones almost slammed into my windshield because he couldn’t see out of the costume…”).
Pay attention to these signs and the next time you hear “I’ll call you” after a date, you won’t have to wonder.