It may not prove whether or not someone is lying to you, but a working knowledge of micro facial expressions — some crossing the face in less than a fifth of a second — can reveal clues about a person’s true feelings.
Students in Jeffrey Andrews’ AP psychology class at WHRHS on Tuesday, April 28 took a sample of the San Francisco-based Paul Ekman Group’s copyrighted Micro Expression Training Tool, or METT, program during a visit by former Secret Service Special Agent Paul Kelly.
Students — all seniors, a third of whom will be studying psychology in college next year — gave the program high marks in post-event comment forms, according to Andrews.
“I find it extremely progressive and impressive that the training is finding its way into some branches of the military,” said one student who opted to withhold her name. “You pick up on a lot more and are able to see how people truly feel about something said in everyday conversation.”
The student cautioned, however, against reading specifics into such fleeting expressions.
“Ever since participating, I have not been able to stop noticing micro expressions,” said Hannah Cotter. “A blessing and a curse!”
Hailey Hennessey found the topic exciting, too.
“I’m very into all of it,” she said. “It felt really exciting to have a professional, experienced guest give us a rare look into it.”
Maddie Scheller said she hasn’t noticed many micro expressions in daily interactions, but recognizes real-life applications of being able to do so. The students also enjoyed the hands-on nature of the workshop.
METT tested the students twice on a series of videos of people displaying neutral expressions interrupted for 1/10 of a second by one of seven expressions universal to all humans: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.
“You could say, by a stretch, that facial micro expressions since they are non verbal, could be a type of body language, but it’s really much different,” said Kelly, an Ekman Group instructor.
He said Andrews’ interest as well as that of the motivated AP students brought him to schedule the visit.
Ekman is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on facial emotion and recognized by the American Psychological Association as one of the 100 most distinguished psychologists since Sigmund Freud.
“The face is the clearest example of emotion,” Kelly said. “His (Ekman’s) work is very much science-based. … “What he’s looking at, in terms of emotion, is if the face can reveal an emotion other than what the person is presenting.”
After determining a baseline score based on the students’ answers to the first video test, Kelly went over details of each expression and the physical clues to each emotion before the students were retested. Commonly confused in the early stages of training are fear and surprise as well as contempt and disgust, he explained.
“I am watching the T, primarily the center line of the face,” he said. “When it comes to emotion … ears are not a factor, but the wrinkles in your forehead are, the eyebrows are, the nose muscles and cheeks are, the upper lip is a factor. Teeth are a factor. The mouth itself, the jaw, the neck, the head — it’s all there, but it’s all a center line. I’m just taking it all in.”
Every student at least improved on their baseline scores, with those scoring in the average range at least doubling their score in the second test.
“In real life, once you get this in your skill set, you’re going to be picking it up all the time,” Kelly said. “Most of the time you don’t notice it about yourself because it is involuntary. The micro is in short duration because it’s stifled somehow.”
Ekman teamed with Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan, a psychologist interested in evaluating truthfulness and credibility, to study how good people are at recognizing deception. They discovered that, globally, there is only a 53 percent rate of accuracy.
“That’s not much better than chance,” Kelly said. “Only one-third of 1 percent of all the people they tested were significantly more accurate in evaluating truthfulness … why were they better?”
The Secret Service was among the higher scoring subsets in the study. Kelly said he is convinced that is because Secret Service Agents deal with a lot of people who threaten those officials they protect. Many of those threats are from people with mental illnesses.
Secret Service agents are, therefore trained to be active listeners and observers, he said.
Macro expressions are the broad smiles or pronounced frowns people see every day — the expressions a person is trying to show you. Micros are shorter duration; almost involuntary, subtle expressions brief in duration and minis are briefer still.
“What we are really conscious of is, when a micro is displayed that is contrary to what the person is saying,” Kelly said. “That’s why this skill set is not just for cops, it’s for anybody that deals with people.”
He stressed there is no single physical clue to expose when a person is lying, or the Pinocchio Fallacy.