...Was That a Smile?


Have you ever instinctively known someone was lying to you?  Or left a friend’s house feeling worried about them, despite the fact that they had nothing but good news to share?  Perhaps more commonly, have you ever immediately formed an opinion of someone you barely know?

Generally we assume that these sorts of gut-level reactions are the product of intuition, a little-understood but widely-recognized component of human interaction with the world.  Research dating from the 1960s, however, shows a much more stunning possibility: we are not actually intuiting this information at all, but rather receiving it from an eminently expressive source:

The human face.

We spend a lot of our time trying to convince others (and sometimes ourselves) that we are feeling differently than we are: confident when we are actually insecure, brave when we are afraid, happy when we are miserable.  The reasons vary, but it turns out the results are the same…when we hide our true feelings, they nonetheless flash through for a very brief period of time.

This period, which scientific pioneer Dr. Paul Ekman has termed the “microexpression,” usually last for about 1/15 to 1/25 of a second.  Normal expressions last much longer, and we use them every day to interpret our world.  We habitually look to the faces – and especially eyes – of those around us to figure out where we stand, if we should be worried or afraid, whether a tone of voice is ironic or sincere.  We need this information.

This, among other things, is what hampers individuals with autism so severely – their inability to read the faces of other people.  Without facial input, much of the world (and especially human interaction) is impossible to make sense of.

Even for those of us who don’t have autism, 1/15 of a second is an awfully short amount of time.  The duration, in fact, makes microexpressions almost impossible to detect on a conscious level – without training, anyway.

It turns out, though, that when people practice recognizing such expressions, they get much better.  Dr. Ekman, who was a professor of psychology in the at the University of California at San Francisco for over 30 years and a consultant on the FOX series Lie to Me, now trains corporations, government officials, educational and medical professionals to read these blips of human emotion.

Even for those who take the time to master the skill, much of the mystery remains: why the person is covering his or her feelings cannot be parsed so easily.  Still, the face provides one of the most foolproof polygraphs in existence, for those who know how to use it.

For the rest of us, we will continue to wonder whether our friend is okay or why we hate that new acquaintance.  But although I won’t be paying Dr. Ekman for his help any time soon, I do intend to pay better attention to the faces of those around me.

For more information, check out Paul Ekman’s website here.




Indeed it can be, as anyone who's every tried not to laugh at something funny has discovered. Though interestingly, it is actually the eyes that are the biggest giveaway. It is all but impossible to fake the eye movements of a genuine smile if you don't feel like smiling, and vice versa - impossible to hide them when you're happy. The eyes are also where babies look to interpret the information received by adults. Nonetheless, in my personal experience, I too find the mouth the most telling.

I've often thought about this when interpreting body language, but more importantly facial expressions. That fraction of a second when a persons true reaction hasn't had time to be covered up by social cues. I've always found myself looking at a persons mouth - with the largest number of muscles in the face its the feature that can often be the hardest to control.

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