This weeks blog post is about an interesting and highly researched phenomenon in unconscious movements – microexpressions. But before we dive into that we have some exciting updates on our next crowdfunding campaign set to launch next Sunday (the 13th) and run until the beginning of May. We are very excited for this latest run of crowdfunding, and have changed quite a few things about our campaign from the last time around, including using a new website - Rockethub.com - and including incentives to to show our appreciation for the support we recieve - this would include shirts and USB's etc. - please let us know if there is anything you would like to see included in our incentive list! We look forward to the next month of campaigning to see our latest experiment happen. We should have a new page devoted to our newest experiment going up in the next few days so stay tuned for that and we hope that you will check out our campaign page when we are ready to launch our latest round of crowdfunding!
And now, on to the main blog post!
Have you ever had a moment when you instinctively felt that someone was lying to you? How did you know? Was it their tone of voice, or their use of words (or lack thereof)? Maybe it was their body posture, or a particular movement - like a poker tell - that accompanied their lie? Perhaps it was a combination of any of these options that let you know... Or perhaps it was “something about their face”, a brief glimpse of an expression that just didn’t seem right, that made you aware of the fact they weren't telling the truth.
This phenomenon is known as a “microexpression”, differentiated from a normal facial expression by its lifetime spent appearing on the face; where normal facial expressions, or “macroexpressions”, last half a second or longer, most microexpressions only occur for fractions of a second (between 40 and 67 milliseconds). While the appearance of microexpressions doesn’t exclusively indicate that a person is lying, it is a definite indicator that they are attempting to conceal their true feelings. Whether or not this concealment is intentional - for example, trying to suppress the admission of something - or unintentional - repressing opinions about a topic during a conversation - microexpressions still appear. This is not to say, however, that people make microexpressions all the time, and the microexpressions that people sometimes express don’t always provide conclusive insight into their true thoughts and feelings! (More on this later.)
There are seven main types of microexpressions, each signaling a different type of emotion: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt. These spring from the theory that there are seven types of facial expressions that are commonly expressed in the same way across all cultures - but this is another can of worms that I won’t get into at the moment. Every type of microexpression depends on the degree that different parts of the face contract or relax, and this is determined by the Facial Action Coding System adapted by Dr. Paul Ekman, the godfather of much of the research done into microexpressions. This system takes into account all the parts and characteristics of the areas of the face - from the size of the eyes to how much a person’s brows are contracted, to the curvature of one’s mouth - and can be used by various types of people to recognize the different attributes of facial expressions. In our case, the degrees of movement that the FACS has for microexpressions are much lower than normal expressions.
However, what is most fascinating about microexpressions is the fact that they appear unconsciously. Unlike normal expressions, it is difficult to detect your own microexpressions when you are talking (though you may be aware of your own suppression that causes the microexpressions to form), and this difficulty becomes more apparent when people attempt to “rein them in”. Naturally, this goes both ways: it is difficult for someone to consciously detect microexpressions appearing on another person's face without prior knowledge and/or training to do so.
Since the appearance of microexpressions can potentially be linked to deception, the ability for one to detect microexpressions can be highly linked to being able to detect deceit. Again, Dr. Ekman spearheaded research into this application of microexpressions by heading the “Wizards Project”, which sought to find people who had a high aptitude at detecting lies. These people, known as “truth wizards”, were able to identify when people were lying with an 80% success rate. Though people from many different backgrounds were tested, only 50 of the 20,000 people were identified as truth wizards, and many of them were US Secret Service agents *(which is kind of surprising, as FBI personnel, attorneys, and psychologists were also part of the test group, and did not have nearly as many people who were successful as the Secret Service did).
Far from this singular application, Dr. Ekman emphasizes that, in understanding microexpressions, we understand ourselves and others better through being able to “follow up” on these perceptions. Being able to spot facial expressions of any type is crucial to empathy and emotional intelligence, and by learning how to see microexpressions - which are some of the quickest facial expressions - we learn how to perceive other, slower facial expressions more acutely and respond to them accordingly. In turn, our relationships improve in almost every way: we are better able to understand others’ emotions, we are more skilled at managing our own, and we have more freedom to develop social skills. Understanding microexpressions is a tricky but worthwhile venture.
The whole field of microexpressions, and especially Dr. Ekman’s research, was the inspiration of the TV series “Lie to Me”. Taking a page from the Wizards Project, the main character of the show was essentially a truth wizard: he could analyze body language, speech, and facial expressions (including microexpressions) to determine whether or not people were lying. In fact, he basically managed an entire company composed of truth wizards, and they made their services available to whoever had the money - from individual clients, to corporations of dubious moral integrity, to government agencies attempting to find deception in their ranks. While “Lie to Me” might have dramatized aspects of truth detection and microexpressions, it managed to bring awareness of this fascinating unconscious phenomena to the public.
So, if microexpressions are so difficult to detect, how are we able to "get a feeling"that someone's lying by looking at their face? Just like how these microexpressions unconsciously manifest, perhaps at some base level we are able to unconsciously perceivethem and use them to influence our perception. Whatever the case may be, microexpressions are just one of many different types of unconscious movements - just like the ones produced by Ouija players - that we explore at the Inner Intelligence Project.