Lying and Microexpressions: Catching a Thief


Who really stole the cookies from the cookie jar?

The childhood game of Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar introduces a true problem: how can you spot a thief? And once you narrow down your suspects, how can you determine which adamant "couldn't be-er" is the one actually lying?

There's a reason why our great grandparents, grandparents, parents, us, and yes now our children all sang and continue to sing this song, going round to several participants in search of an answer. But, if armed with the proper knowledge, the cookie monster would readily be found, resulting in a sadly much shorter and less-fun version of the game.

So how, when confronted with a similar "whodunnit" situation, would you be able to come to a quick, logical, and scientifically substantiated conclusion, cutting out all that monotonous guesswork? Let's find out!

Let's pretend you really are an angry parent who baked cookies (from scratch, mind you!) that have since vanished, only a few crumbs remaining. You interview two suspects in their disappearance: 5-year-old Tommy McMillian and 6-year-old Betty Sweeny.

Which one did it?

Interrogation #2: Betty

The blonde-pig-tailed, thickly lashed little girl sits before you, delicate hands resting in the lap of her perfectly starched red-and-white checkered dress.

Her eye twitches and she frowns faintly upon hearing your question.

“Who me??? Couldn’t be!!” she protests.

She pauses, flashes a blindingly white dimpled smile and looks slyly side to side. Leaning in close she whispers, “I’d ask Tommy….”

Interrogation #1: Tommy

The chubby, red-haired toddler across from you insists that he is innocent, yet he fails to meet your eye. He doesn’t know what you’re talking about, he mutters, and fidgets with dirty, pudgy fingers.

So where was he? His voice cracks as he stammers an incoherent response.

You notice brown smudges, alarmingly similar in appearance to melted chocolate, upon his stubby upturned nose…and could those be crumbs on his shirt?

At first there were some, and then there were none...
At first there were some, and then there were none... | Source

Mr. McMillian: Is he Guilty?

You, as most others would, conclude that Tommy is most likely the thief. Chubby children require their extra calories, after all. And, he exhibited several of the “tells” of a liar: failure to maintain eye contact, nervous fidgety behavior, vocalized stress, and a reluctance to answer questions or provide an alibi.

Unfortunately, the once-believed tell-tale behaviors Tommy exhibited have been scientifically shown to be overall weak indicators of deception (1). Most individuals are understandably nervous when questioned about a crime and can perform any or all of these actions as a consequence of that alone…not because they did anything wrong.

Odds are that several other children would behave in much the same manner as Tommy, leading to an around and around the circle, anyone could be "it" situation that could be fun...unless you really want to know "whodunnit".

So what clues can you use? Well….there is a reliable method to accurately pinpoint the liar: microexpression analysis.

The Microexpression

What is a microexpression? A microexpression is an involuntary facial expression made fleetingly that reveals raw emotion before an individual can mask or conceal it. (It is very different from the readily observable macroexpression made when an individual does not attempt to change or hide their feelings and so they remain upon their face).

People display microexpressions every day, and to the untrained eye, such expressions may float over their faces so quickly they remain unnoticed—we’re talking a duration of as little as a fifteenth of a second. To the outsider they may look simply like a facial twitch or muscle spasm.

Sometimes these expressions may be acknowledged on a subconscious level and leave the viewer with a “feeling” that’s hard to shake but which is eventually dismissed due to having, they believe, no substantial reason to believe it.

A New Conclusion

Tommy McMillian appeared unsure of himself and gave no excuses or plausible explanations for his whereabouts when the alleged crime was committed. However he also made no effort to hide his emotions and they endured, unchanging throughout his interview.

Betty Sweeny, on the other hand, showed an initial emotion—the eye twitch was a quick raising of the brow and widening of the eye, which with her small grimace completed the expression of fear--and she quickly attempted to mask this with a smile and by passing the blame on to another.

Betty, being a clever 6-year-old, shared a particularly gooey cookie with Tommy right before she realized her crime would be discovered, in hopes that he would incriminate himself. And, had he smiled, you would have seen a set of brown-tinged pearly whites, sealing his fate: a non-negotiable 10 minute time out.

Luckily, now, with your newfound knowledge, you will be far less likely to make such a mistake. In fact, you can pinpoint your "Betty" faster and with a much higher rate of success. The long and painful investigative process has been curtailed! But, for their benefit, you can still play Who Stole The Cookies From the Cookie Jar with your children and pretend that you are none the wiser!

A happy little tyke
A happy little tyke | Source

The Many Applications of the Microexpression

The application of the microexpression is not limited to angry parents in search of small cookie thieves. In fact, examinations of this type are performed by the FBI and members of the armed forces on a routine basis to assess the validity of various sources of information.

What is especially useful about micoexpression analysis is that it is a universally applicable tool. It can be used on every person on the planet regardless of gender, race, religion, or location, with rare exception (the psychopath or sociopath may not feel, and therefore, will not always express normal emotions…or the Botox junkie who simply cannot move his or her face).

When someone is happy they smile, whether they are 2 months or 20 years old, white or black, male or female, in Africa or in Antarctica. Even blind individuals share the same exact expressions though they cannot see their own faces or the faces of others (2).

Our faces automatically change to externally mirror our feelings and there is pretty much nothing we can do to prevent this, at least not instantaneously (hence the fraction of a second lapse of control where the microexpression is seen). For this reason, microexpression analysis will always be a valid approach to gaging one another's emotions.

Another benefit, this type of scrutiny can be performed with little to no prior knowledge regarding the person to which it is being applied. Other forms of lie detection—such as verbal analysis—frequently require the comparison of what is considered the “normal” behavior of an individual to how that normalcy changes and why.

Varying emotions
Varying emotions | Source

How to Better Detect the Seemingly Undetectable

All human emotions are categorized into one of seven: happiness, surprise, contempt, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. And each of these is the result of unvarying and predicable patterns of facial movement. When seen on the face of another, we instinctively know how to correctly identify each and how to differentiate one from the other.

Lowered upper lids, a lack of focus of the eyes, and the slight downturn of the mouth indicate sadness. A wrinkled nose and raised upper lip depict disgust, and a furrowed brow, glaring eyes, and pursed lips reveal anger. We all know this but the microexpression analyst can detect the most minute versions of these and recognize what they mean in the instant before they vanish. The rest of us are not so talented and require a more obvious, prolonged version before become aware of what we are looking at.

But even the practiced and observant can sometimes miss a cue. For this reason, the most accurate reading of microexpressions is done using videotaped footage; tapes can be paused or put in slow motion, allowing viewers extended access to otherwise fleeting facial movements. However, this visual aid is not always available in real-world settings and so governmental agencies have invested time and money into training employees to see well-hidden emotions without technological assistance.

Following training, FBI National Academy graduates can detect microexpressions on their own over 70 percent of the time; some who are especially gifted display an over 90 percent accuracy (1). Similarly impressive, trained officers of the U.S. Coast Guard have an over 80% accuracy rate (1). These individuals repeatedly and successfully pinpoint people who lie and they retain this ability weeks after training.

Beyond The Lie

Microexpressions provide an even greater gift: they reveal not only if a person’s words match their true feelings, but just what their feelings are. If the name of a victim is brought up and a flash of disgust or contempt flashes upon someone’s face while they verbally express adoration not only have they been caught in a lie; it is now known that they feel dislike, even hatred, toward the person. They are not just a verified unreliable source; they are now a suspect.

Had You Ever Heard of a Microexpression Before Reading This Hub?

  • Nope! News to me!!
  • Yes, I can literally read people like a book!
See results without voting

Knowledge is Power...But is This Good or Bad?

Beyond crime, this type of analysis can be used in the workplace by bosses to see if their agenda has approval or if employees support various proposals. Employees can use it upon their bosses to see if their performance has met expectations and whether or not they are in good standing. Each can change their actions based on what they see the other truly thinks of them.

Husbands and wives can tell whether or not they really, truly look fat in those pants they just put on (whether that is a good thing is debatable). Parents may notice whether children are doing homework, as they insist, or up to no good. Even strangers can get a glimpse into the inner thoughts and feelings of one another with a simple well-timed glance.

People lie repeatedly all day, every day, for years, for decades, for their entire lives. There are black lies, white lies, grey lies…society would cease to properly function without them. People would offend everywhere, all the time. Surely every politician would be out of a job. And, let’s face it, husbands would find themselves spending a considerable amount of time in the proverbial doghouse.

So think twice before embarking on a test of your microexpression detecting skills and learning how to improve this ability: you just may be opening a Pandora’s box. Or, if you can selectively ignore the twitching facial muscles when your wife insists you are not balding and your friend expresses admiration for your golfing skills and instead use this knowledge only to proactively read the minds of your boss and coworkers, more power to you.

Test Your Skills

The following websites allow you to test your microexpression detecting abilities:




More by this Author

Comments 22 comments

mySuccess8 profile image

mySuccess8 2 years ago

An interesting subject of microexpressions, and with training, a person could learn to see these split-second involuntary facial expressions when they occurred. You have given beginners like me some knowledge and understanding, so that we can now try to learn to gauge the concealed feelings of others. Like this Hub and congrats on Hub of the Day!

toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 2 years ago

Excellent article. It is a tough skill to master because you really have to be alert to catch the quick expression. I am not that good at it, but when I have caught that microexpression, the image stays in your mind and all the other facial expressions mean nothing. It is truly amazing. Thanks for a great hub! Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting

Craan profile image

Craan 2 years ago from Florida

Wow, this is news to me! I first lied to my dad regarding a toilet flush when I was 8. I told the truth when my mother said nothing would happen, however, my dad still punished me.

RoadMonkey profile image

RoadMonkey 2 years ago

Very interesting. Never heard of these before, I think the caveat of being careful how and where you practise this is probably very well worth listening to!

colorfulone profile image

colorfulone 2 years ago from Minnesota

I have watched shows about microexpressions and found it so interesting. It has become a handy tool for me in real life conversations on occasion.

Misfit Chick profile image

Misfit Chick 2 years ago from Seattle, WA - USA - The WORLD

Nice, interesting and informative article. The cancelled show 'Lie to Me' used these microexpressions. It was a fascinating show.

CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

You did a wonderful job with this. using the stories of the two little cookie thieves was genius. It really pulled me in and made me want to red more. One thing about the poll--a person could have heard of micro-expressions, but still not e skilled at reading people. HOTD was swell deserved. voting up.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

Congrats on HOTD!

This was very interesting. My husband has long had a gift for 'reading' peoples' character, and knows several "macro" ways to tell if someone is lying. The one that sticks in my mind, that he shared is this: It is likely someone is lying if their eyes look up and left--they are trying to think up a story, not recall the facts. But if their eyes look up and to the right, they are searching their memory for the truth.

Voted up, interesting and useful.

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


As a beginner myself, I just wish there were more resources out there to help us improve this ability! Most of what I found were training tools for a cost, and while it may be worth it to pull out the wallet, it would be nice not to have to. I will keep looking for helpful (and hopefully free!) links and post any I find.

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


I know, I did the online tests and did not score well at all. Since, I have been trying to analyze the microexpressions of the politicians on the news, but they are either very practiced at hiding their true feelings or I am even worse at this than I thought! 

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


Haha, I actually read an article on how children first discover the power of the lie and go wild and crazy with it to determine how much they can get away with. I told some pretty huge whoppers back in the day, and the only thing I’m worse at than detecting lies is telling them so I got caught as well!

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


Thank you! I know, my husband is very glad I haven’t grasped this skill fully as I accused him of forgetting our anniversary and he insists he remembered it before I told him when it was. Now that I told him, it’s impossible to know for certain but I swear he did a quick bug-eyed “crap, is it today?” type look before I did.

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


I am so jealous, I haven’t been able to really use it well yet. But, I do plan to keep trying and I will definitely trust my “feelings” more in the future, as they may be due to subconsciously recognizing a microexpression!

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author

Misfit Chick,

Thank you! Yes, my friends told me about that show. It does sound worth watching, I wonder if I can find those episodes online somehow. I will look!

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


Thank you so much! I usually have a more formal tone in my writing but decided I would be a bit more playful with this hub and am very glad it worked! I love how hubpages allows us the freedom to write not only about anything but from any viewpoint and with any style we choose.

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 2 years ago from US Author


Thank you! That is a great skill to have and I’m sure it has been very helpful for your husband in many situations! If he added micro detection to his macro skills he would be a regular mind reader….you better not tell him about it! :P

Elsie Hagley profile image

Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

Very interesting. I haven't heard of this word microexpressions, could be very useful if I ever need it. With my family I can usually tell if they are telling the truth, I know them too well.

Congratulations for the HOTD.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 24 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I took the test at microexpressionstest and had a perfect score: 0%. Too bad you can't see the microexpressions that were on my face. Anyway, congrats on the HOTD.

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 24 months ago from US Author

Hi Elsie,

Well it sounds like it won't be necessary for the family, but it will help you with others! And you never know, you may be unaware just how often the kiddos fib... :) Thank you and I appreciate your comment!

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 24 months ago from US Author


Oh no! You need a lot more practice, I'm afraid. The good thing is if you repeat the tests enough times you end up with an 100%...though that's more just because you've memorized the answers than because your microexpression detecting abilities improved! ;) Thankyou!

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 18 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub about the classic childhood game. Nice analysis on who done it and why. Voted up for useful and interesting!

RobinGrosswirth23 profile image

RobinGrosswirth23 16 months ago from New York

Unfortunately, I have seen this. Generally, common man does not lie on a regular basis. We aren't designed to be liars, though a few are naturals, like sociopaths. Most, it is easy to see and as you say, plain as the microexpression upon their faces. Plus, if a person has to first await their target, generally, the actions are not smooth. When something is native or natural, detection is not needed because it is acceptable behavior, not labored or out of character.

Interesting blog/hub

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article