Test How Micro expressions Betray Our Emotions

We can learn to spot lies

I've been watching the new-ish Fox show Lie to Me with real interest: based on the findings of Dr. Paul Ekman (who trained as a clinical psychologist and worked until 2004 at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute), the TV show demonstrates how the human face betrays our emotions with microexpressions, even when we are trying to mask our feelings. Ekman started to concentrate specifically on how human faces (regardless of nationality, gender, cultural conditioning, or any other potential influence you can think of) betray our lies.

The TV show uses fictional cases and supporting slow-motion footage or still photographs of famous people showing their real feelings, however briefly. It's all real, and it's all fascinating, so I decided to research the show -- which led me to Dr. Ekman's research -- which led me to a wealth of information on micro-expressions, how to spot them, and what they reveal about us. And we can't hide them.

Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman

The show Lie to Me details the cases of a Dr. Cal Lightman, who heads the private Lightman Group in working with individuals or corporations who simply need to know urgently whether someone is lying to them. Indeed, the real Dr. Paul Ekman directs the Ekman Group, which supplies materials needed to train others in the process of detecting emotions (his website calls it "emotional skills"), and which is most recently "initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement."

The implications of this are wide ranging and intriguing: if security forces could be trained reliably in "reading faces" and interpreting certain unconscious human gestures and expressions, their work might well be aided considerably. Likewise, if police investigators could easily recognize when a suspect is lying or telling the truth, cases might well be solved more successfully.

While such research and detection is not yet admissible in court, it may well be in the future; it is clearly relevant information and can help in discovering the truth, building a case against a suspect, deciding whether to trust a key employee or potential colleague -- the applications are endless.

Lie detectors don't work as well as recognition of microexpressions

Many law enforcement agencies rely on polygraph testing to ensure the subject is telling the truth. While it doesn't hold conclusive weight in court, it is considered to be a scientific method that is consistent and reliable.

It isn't.

See for yourself

Ekman's training Demo gives some indication of how it all works. The site used to provide examples of microexpressions common to all humans, no matter the culture (that's the fact that keeps me intrigued) -- but the links seem to be down (perhaps they were getting too many visitors?). Try this link, as it seems to be working again.

The site for the TV show, however, has examples of common microexpressions, as does Hulu; so go ahead and experiment with examining your interlocutors for telltale scorn, disbelief, sadness. . .


And this Hub wouldn't be complete without a few comments on the actors in the TV show, since I'm an avid fan of good acting. The cast of Lie to Me are exceptional--Tim Roth as Cal Lightman presents a character who is energetically obnoxious, confrontational, plainspoken, and occasionally, when able to trust those around him for brief moments, quietly decent and respectful of his peers. He has few of those, however, as he can see everyone else lying to him constantly, 24/7; this skill is not something the character can switch off when he wants to relax.

Roth attacks the character with the same passion that he shows Lightman putting into his work, with all the determination of a small terrier going after a mole, not caring what debris he kicks up in the process of uncovering truth, nor how inconvenient or painful the process might be for the blind, reluctant critters. He makes it this character's mission, his central belief, that truth will ultimately free them all.

The name of Lightman, incidentally, may suggest someone "bringing what is dark to the light," sure -- but it also is reminiscent of an allegorical character in a Medieval Morality play, or more specifically (from Renaissance English drama) -- Lightborn in Marlowe's Edward II -- derived from the name of Lucifer. . . .

So what are these expressions?

Microexpressions are just that: brief, fleeting expressions that we unconsciously use all the time. Dr. Ekman's research indicates that the average person tells up to three lies during any ten-minute period. These could be lies about how we're feeling ("Great! How are you?"), white lies about anything; the lies of social interaction that we find it necessary to tell in our everyday lives. Think about it -- don't believe it? Listen to what you're saying, and compare it to what you're really thinking or feeling ("I enjoyed working with you," "You look great after your surgery!" "I love your new outfit," "looking forward to seeing you").

I finally went to Ekman's training program and paid for the cheapest, most basic training they have ($20). It was interesting, although skimpy on the content; but I did learn to recognize some basic micro-expressions and improved my score from 69% to 85% in a matter of minutes. 

Try a new site here: this is selling a training program, too, if you're interested. It's on Humintell, and some of the testimonials are very enthusiastic indeed about the course.  I think I'll try this one, too, and let you know.

But if you're like me -- conscious that my perception of reality is changing from moment to moment -- what the truth can actually be becomes more problematic. I often feel that I am telling lies when this happens, although technically, I'm not. (Or am I lying to myself?) I would like to see the show address such a situation; the wonderful complex plots, though, are engaging no matter what the subject may be. Check out the episode on poker players, consummate liars and disemblers -- or the one entitled "Secret Santa," which takes a very incisive look at the truth of why some folk seem to thrive in life-threatening situations. It's a very thought-provoking show, transmitted through an artificial medium, yet capable of capturing moments of naked truth.

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Comments 44 comments

RKHenry profile image

RKHenry 7 years ago from Your neighborhood museum

Well I guess the old saying, "Keeping a straight face" has true meaning. I'll have to check out the show. Thanks Teresa.

Journey * profile image

Journey * 7 years ago from USA

Hi Teresa, I have yet to watch the show for the first time, but your hub is very interesting and makes me want to check out the show. Thanks for writing.-Journey*

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Great information - sort of fits in with the findings of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Rogers' ideas about congruence.

Intersting read indeed, thanks.

Love and peace


Pete Maida profile image

Pete Maida 7 years ago

Excellent article. I'm going to check out the show. This could be quite valuable in a poker game. The little white lies are necessary; it is the basis for tact as the old Jim Carrey movie pointed out.

Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

Hi Teresa! I've always been fascinated with non verbal communication, and this adds a new level to it! I saw a documentary on NG about detecting lies through facial expression, they concentrated a lot on where the eyes look at when trying to find an answer to a tricky question. Seems if the eyes look up and right they're searching the creative side of the brain, hence a lie is in the works, and instead if they look sidewises to the left they are really looking for a real answer stored in the logic part of the brain. Fascinating :-)

robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey

Fascinating hub and the video is really enticing. I'm not a big Fox fan, but I will have to check this one out for sure. Reading body language is something we all do so instinctively-- and so do dogs and cats--hmmmm another fascinating hub subject. Thanks for this. I really enjoyed it.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Robie -- I'll have to admit, if Tim Roth wasn't in the show I probably wouldn't have looked at it. He's such a good actor that I get completely pulled in.

Elena -- isn't it fascinating? We don't realize we're doing it. I've been trying to catch myself looking up and to the right -- it's true! I'm a liar!

Pete -- if it helps your poker face, remember where you learned the information when you're counting your winnings!

Tony -- Neuro-linguistic programming I'm not familiar with at all. Good! Something else to research (I love it!) Thanks for visiting and for your comment.

Hey Journey -- thanks for stopping by.

RK-- see if you can catch yourself NOT keeping a straight face. It gets addictive. . .

Dottie1 profile image

Dottie1 7 years ago from MA, USA

Excuse me a moment while I go take a look at my face. Nope, I'm not lying! not yet anyways. Loved the hub. (Lying) (Kiddin) LOL

Lisa HW profile image

Lisa HW 7 years ago from Massachusetts

Interesting Hub. We've all probably experienced "getting vibes" from liars, even when the person (as on a news program featuring a sociopath) seems to making all the "right" expressions. We may not be able to exactly identify why it is we sense he's lying, but we see that he's somehow different from someone who is obviously telling the truth.

I would think, though, question the person who claims that the average person lies three times during any ten minute period. I would think it would depend on the setting in which the ten-minute period takes place - for example, a job interview versus being out with a friend for coffee or meeting a casual acquaintance at the store.

I can't believe most other people are all that different from me: At a job interview where I don't think much of the job (or even do), I'm likely to tell all kinds of lies about "being impressed with the company" and "appreciating the time". In my personal life, though, while there are things I'm not about to share with a friend or a casual acquaintance, whatever I say is most often true. I may not tell the details of some flu-like symptoms I have, but I'll be honest and say, "I've got some awful flu - so don't come close." If I'm unhappy one day, I won't give details; but I may say, "Oh, I'm having one of those days." I'm not above the rare, necessary, and/or polite white lie ("My car didn't start" or "Oh, I'd to be there but I have plans that day."), but I think months go by between times those seem necessary. I suspect if I don't like someone I'm not capable of hiding it in my microexpressions (or "regular" expressions, either); but I don't meet many people I don't like (even if I don't want to be their best friend).

Again, interesting subject; but I'm just not sure I accept that one point about how often the average person lies. On the one hand, if they mean not sharing every thought/feeling we have, then I think we all live one, big, lie. If they mean, however, having what we say not match we we mean - then that's what I would question.

Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Hi Teresa

I hate this hub! LOL

anyway, does this mean that having a poker face means controling microexpressions? interesting hub, i'll check out the links. thanks for sharing :D

Anna Marie Bowman profile image

Anna Marie Bowman 7 years ago from Florida

I am hooked on the show Lie to Me!!!! It's so interesting! Especially when they show pictures of real people showing the same expressions as the ones in the story. It's very interesting, and I am learning a lot! Great research!!!

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Teresa McGurk, fascinating topic! I'll have to read up on it. I think facial tics that reveal that we are lying are an example of how cooperative behavior -- such as not lying about important matters affecting others -- is ultimately an aid to survival. The individual who lies is trying to serve his own interests, but the facial tics were bred into him, so that he and those counting on him may survive as a group.

Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

What an amazing topic , and hub Teresa. Not sure if the show is over here, will have to search the sky channels. One to watch I think.

SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

It is interesting to consider how facial tics do betray people and their emotions. 

k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

Very interesting, I'm going to have to go back and try the METT training. I have to tell my kids to record this show for me! Thanks for the info.

Ktoo profile image

Ktoo 7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia, USA

I have been watching this show as well and find it fascinating. I think I'm learning to spot microexpressions through some the illustrations the show gives. It's interesting stuff for sure, and this is a very well written hub about the topic, thanks!

Mighty Mom profile image

Mighty Mom 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

All I can say is I'm soooo glad I've turned over a new leaf and given up my lyin', cheatin', thievin' ways for a life of rigorous honesty! Thanks for the thoughtful hub. This definitely is a fascinating area. MM

Iphigenia 7 years ago

Never heard of the show (well, I have now ....) but like you I'd watch it for Tim Roth alone ever since his first film 'Made in Britain" (1982) I've followed his career.

Anyway - this is a fascinating subject and a great hub - your enjoyment of the research you've done so thoroughly shines through.

TIP : sunglasses and a beret are useful in hiding one's microexpressions ..... just saying.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Iphigenia -- I can imagine that sunglasses and a beret are excellent -- yep, it's hard to read your face with them on!

MM-- rigorous honesty is the way to go (I think I left mine in my other suit, though).

Ktoo -- isn't it addictive?

k@ri -- you'll get hooked -- what gets me is that it's the same for every individual.

Hey SweetiePie: it isn't actually an individual tic per se, it's a universal expression -- which makes it readable from face to face.

Hawkesdream -- yeah, have a look for it. It certainly has relevance outside of the show itself.

Aya: what's fascinating to me is that it is uniform across cultures, genders, upbringing.

Anna Marie: I'm getting caught up in the characters --

Hey Cris! I hate you! lol -- no, actually it means that there is no such thing as a true poker face -- well, the point about poker is that you keep speaking to a minimum, so that no microexpressions can "leak" out

Lisa: yes, I would imagine that the average figure allows for all sorts of situations

Dottie: thanks for stopping by! no lies!

Pam Roberson profile image

Pam Roberson 7 years ago from Virginia

Hi Teresa! I'm going to have to keep a look out for this show, because it does sound very interesting. Three lies in ten minutes? Wow, that's a bit difficult for me to believe, but it also makes me wonder about how sometimes a lie brings on a lie. For example, when you run into someone you know, the first question usually is "How are you?" Depending on who the person is, many times you know it's just a polite expression of acknowledgement, and he/she could actually care less about how you really are, so you respond with "Fine" or "Okay" even when you aren't fine or okay.

It's always confused me about why people make a choice to lie. I understand the white ones involving saying you're fine when you're not or stretching the truth in an interview, but in every day relationships telling lies always catches up with the person in one way or another and often it also leads to having to tell even more lies to cover up the first one. That takes way too much energy!

Very interesting!

Laughing Mom profile image

Laughing Mom 7 years ago

Pam, you said exactly what I was thinking!

I'd never heard of the show before your hub, Teresa, and now I want to see it! i read people's expressions alot, I'd love to have more information to interpret them.

What an interesting topic!

rongould profile image

rongould 7 years ago

It is an interesting show. I have enjoyed the few episodes I've had time to watch. Also, thought-provoking.

MissJamieD profile image

MissJamieD 7 years ago from Minnes-O-ta

As Laughing Mom said, I too have always watched peoples facial expressions AND body language. I can stand away from someone and watch them interacting in their life, and sometimes guess pretty close as to what they're thinking at the time. I'm no expert, please don't think I'm insinuating that I am, I've just always enjoyed "reading" people. In fact, I remember when I was 12 years old (now 33) I was riding in a car with my sister, mother, and grandmother. Everyone else was oblivious to what this man and woman were doing at the end of their driveway, but as soon as I spotted them, I couldn't look away. As our car whizzed by the couple, I could tell the man was saying something and pointing at his head. I told my family, "They're fighting and he's telling her to use her head". It was funny at the time, and totally elementary, I realize that. But I've been interested in this for all of these years.


Awesome topic and awesome hub!

Jewels profile image

Jewels 7 years ago from Australia

This is so great. Most people are out of touch with their true feelings to begin with and lie spontaneously and unconsciously to so many situations. I could agree people lie at least 3 times in 10 minutes. I'm laughing, cause this could be a fast track to finding the real self. Imagine getting to your truth the fast way! Thanks Teresa, I think I'll look into this more. Would be good to do a course in it.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Can't wait to check out this new show. Thanks for this well researched hub, Teresa.

pgrundy 7 years ago

Fascinating stuff. I remember reading about a psychology study in which information was given that was the reverse of the body language of the person delivering the information. In about every case people took the body language as the main meaning, not the spoken words. It's interesting in terms of the job interview business. We almost have to lie, and I always think, "This person has to know this is all horsepoop." You can kind of tell when they are all like, "OK now it's your turn to BS me and if you're able to recite the correct BS, then you get the job and I'll BS you a bit more." I haven't seen this show but it sounds good. Tim Roth is a great actor. Thanks for the hub!

Jewels profile image

Jewels 7 years ago from Australia

That's interesting Pam, especially with job interviews. You are set up to lie and you put your body language into it to make sure you're believed. Hmmmm.

franciaonline profile image

franciaonline 7 years ago from Philippines

Hi Teresa,

After reading your hub I followed some of the links you gave. They are all interesting and I'll be returning to the pages I haven't finished. A wealth of information really. Of course, it's it's not fair to conclude that someone is lying from just some basic ideas on how people lie. Microexpressions are certainly a challenging field. Thanks for doing a hub on the topic.

Ashley Joy profile image

Ashley Joy 7 years ago

My daughter and I were reading this hub together since she is doing a CSI type of re-enactment in one of her classes. She will be a detective who has to read the body language of the one they are interrogating. I do not remember doing fun stuff like that when I was in school.

LyrialZander profile image

LyrialZander 7 years ago

I'm going to check out the microexpressions links, thanks for the great hub Teresa!

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

Teresa, all mothers should learn this skill! Must check the links but it may be too late.

cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Now I'm going to become all paranoid and stare at people when they talk to see what they're really thinking!

GeneriqueMedia profile image

GeneriqueMedia 7 years ago from Earth

Interesting Hub, but I should not expect anything less! =)

I've been meaning to watch that show...I just don't watch television very often, but it sounds awesome. Reminds me of NUMB3RS, kinda similar concept...but with math! I like these new shows they've got coming out; the CSI formula has been beaten and left for dead.


Buba.GeMz 7 years ago

Hi, my names Gemma and I'm obsest with microexpressions and unconscious gestures. The programe 'Lie To Me' has been a real eye opener for me. I am age 13 and have ambitions to become a lawyer. I am desperate to try and test out most of the stuff I have learnt from the programe and websites. I have already tried it out of family members and even people on the T.v and it has worked. I think I am a natural! I can't wait to find out. ByeBye..

HOOWANTSTONO profile image

HOOWANTSTONO 7 years ago

Hi there

Yes the show is very interesting, I was wondering if there was any tuition or course material for this type of study.

Yor links are very handy.

Nice hub

Sunny Robinson profile image

Sunny Robinson 7 years ago from Tennessee

As someone who has had to rely on body language, lip reading, and face reading for years due to not being able to hear much, I've had to develop rapid ability to read people since I was little.  But I've always kept it basic to where I can catch the context of body language to the context of what people are trying to tell me. 

I also have had to convey with my entire body and face what I want to tell people and end up having the personality to where I am totally blunt and honest.  If you go out and read the hearing impaired folks, you would be surprised at how easy you can read them.

It's a complicated thing.  I'm no expert at all and often I have had to go through misunderstandings.  I think because I'm so aware of how readable I am, I have a hard time meeting people's eyes.  I know once I meet someone's eyes, my face will begin conveying very obvious things: shyness, awkwardness, uncertainty, or thoughts that are running through my head. I tend to be rather emotional with my face, so it's embarrassing.

I love this hub, Teresa. :) Microexpressions are definitely incredibly interesting things to look into.

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Thank you ALL for stopping by and commenting. I am very pleased that this topic is garnering so much attention, as it is another facet of understanding each other that we really could use to good effect. (Whatever helps us understand each other can't be bad!)

Wow, Sunny -- thanks so much for commenting. I was surprised not to find a tie-in with how the hearing-impaired read microexpressions in the Lie to Me series -- maybe they're keeping it for a future episode? Anyhow, it's a topic that has stayed with me, and I find myself "reading" people at every opportunity (probably incorrectly, too!).

Jane@CM profile image

Jane@CM 7 years ago

CONGRATS! You are in the number 1 spot on the front pages of SheToldMeSo - so excited for you :)

Jane@CM profile image

Jane@CM 7 years ago

CONGRATS! You are in the number 1 spot on the front pages of SheToldMeSo - so excited for you :)

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor Author

Wow -- thank you so much for letting me know, Jane! I'm off to thank Uninvited Writer for telling us about the site.

mwatkins profile image

mwatkins 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon & Vancouver BC

Really smart information! I think it was Katherine Hepburn who said that if an actor could fake sincerity then they were a great actor. My degree is in psychology too! Love your hub! Thanks!

lefseriver profile image

lefseriver 6 years ago from Northern Minnesota

great hub. we like this show.

Multiman 5 years ago

How would this apply to film actors showing emmotion? Is the emmotion genuine, if so are they still lying as to why they feel the emmotion?

Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

Fabulous. I also enjoy the show - great writing and wonderful cast. I stumbled into prof Ekman's work and am currently adapting it's use in Doctor- patient communication. Trying to teach young Medics to observe patient's expressions and other cues to improve history taking and empathetic understanding! Loved the hub... Thanks for sharing! I also agree that Tim Roth just makes the show what it is...

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