So much of our ability to assess risk from another person relies on our skill at reading facial expression and body language, especially as potential perpetrators are trying to mask their true intents. How good, really, are most of us in detecting deceit, and how skillful are perpetrators in deceiving?
Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, has made the study of emotions and nonverbal communication his life work. From his initial research on the universality of facial expressions and the massive catalog of every combination of facial muscle movement, he progressed to how we use–both consciously and unconsciously–our expressions to communicate.
His work has been applied extensively in security fields. Many “lie hunters” such as CIA interrogators, police officers, company managers, and ordinary people questioning the veracity of others have benefited from Ekman’s work. While his work and writing style are academic, Ekman is THE source for anyone interested in better interpreting the actions of others.
What does this mean for your safety?
At the risk of over-simplifying, Ekman found that the majority of us are mediocre liars, and likewise mediocre readers of body language. That being said, he goes on to outline predictors for more successful deceits and better detections. A liar who has successfully deceived his target in the past is more likely to again get away with it. Psychopaths, who don’t have the capacity for empathy, are highly effective liars. On the other side, people who feel a great need for something that another person represents are more likely to be deceived, and even likely to help the deceiver get away with it.
Another challenge is reading microexpressions, those fleeting facial twitches that reveal our feelings before our sense of social acceptability kicks in. Some are so fast that we are not consciously aware of them, yet we likely sense something amiss.
At any given time our bodies are broadcasting about 70 signals. That’s our body language. At the same time, we are only consciously aware of about 10% of these signals. The remaining 90% also are picked up by our senses, but quickly processed by other portions of our brain. If something seems amiss, physical signals that we often interpret as our “gut feelings” or intuition kick in. These signals have the sole agenda of our safety, yet many people override them with less accurate but more socially acceptable rational thoughts–which rely on only 10% of available information plus social expectations.
Our ability to evaluate information and make informed risk assessments is central to our safety. The more we know about how we process—and are inclined to interpret—information, the more accurate our safety assessments will be.
Ekman has written several books easily available in libraries and bookstores. Articles you can download (for free) are available as PDF files on his website. They cover two broad topics: emotion expression and well-being, and lie detection.
Ekman’s group has also produced an interactive self-training CD to help you improve your recognition of telltale fleeting facial expressions. While it is available for sale on his website, Strategic Living can also offer this training by appointment.