Suppressed Emotions and Deception: The Discovery of Micro Expressions

From emotional expressions research to modern micro expressions

suppressed emotions
Excerpt from Emotions Revealed pp. 213-215

Suppressed emotions versus truthfulness

It was not my idea to find out how emotions might be useful in evaluating truthfulness. The question arose nearly forty years ago when I first taught a class to psychiatric trainees at my university. While they were excited to hear about my research suggesting that emotional expressions are universal, what they really wanted was guidance about a critical decision they faced at the hospital: When a patient who had been admitted for acute depression requested a pass to return home for a day, claiming to feel much better and to no longer be thinking of suicide, how could they tell if the patient was telling the truth? Could the patient be lying to get free of the hospital’s supervision to take his or her life? It happened. If the patient was being truthful and really did feel better, spending a day at home was an important step on the path back to a normal life.

I had no idea what answers I would find. Would there be any sign in the person’s facial expressions or gestures indicating that an emotion was fabricated, not real? Could anyone other than a trained actor voluntarily create an expression that looked genuine when it was not? Were human beings capable of deliberately suppressing from view any sign of their true feelings, especially when those emotions were felt very intensely? Was there any way to see the true emotion beneath a false mask?

A grand discovery about emotional expressions

I began by examining in detail one of the films in my library of motion pictures (this was before the advent of video, when sound motion picture film was the only medium for recording expression and gestures). For the previous year, I had been filming interviews of psychiatric patients when they were first admitted to the hospital, again when the staff thought they had significantly improved, and a final time a week before the patients would be discharged. The staff had told me that one of the patients had confessed that she had been lying during her mid-hospitalization interview: She had claimed she was no longer depressed and asked for a weekend pass. A few days before her scheduled pass, she admitted that she intended to take her life when she left the hospital. I had, by luck, a film on the interview in which she had lied.

Mary (not her real name) was a forty-year-old woman who had made three nearly successful suicide attempts before being hospitalized. The first time I watched the mid-hospitalization film I saw no evidence that she was lying about her emotions; she smiled a lot, spoke optimistically, and seemed cheerful. I would have believed her; the doctor did, too.

So my co-researcher, Wally Friesen, and I set up an elaborate multiple-speed motion projector to examine each and every one of her facial expressions and gestures, frame by frame, in very slow motion as well as more rapidly. It took more than a hundred hours for us to go through the twelve-minute film, but it was worth it.

At one point in the interview, the doctor asked Mary about her plans for the future. In a moment’s pause before answering the question, we saw a look of intense anguish flash across Mary’s face. It was only two frames out of twenty-four– 1/12 of a second — quickly covered by a smile. We watched it again and again; there was no doubt about what it revealed. In freeze frame, her true emotion was extremely clear, then deliberately concealed. Once we had discovered what to look for by reviewing the footage in slow motion, we found two more very fast expressions of anguish in the film.

Friesen and I termed these very fast facial movements lasting 1/25 to ⅕ of a second micro expressions, and noted that they produced nonverbal leakage about a person’s true feelings. Later I learned that psychologists Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs had discovered micro expressions three years before us, but had proposed that they are not visible in real time and are signs of repressed emotion, not deliberately suppressed emotions. We had found that it was possible to see micro expressions without slowed motion, if you knew what to look for; we didn’t yet know how easy it would be to teach people how to spot them.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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