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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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