Category Archives: “Facial Expressions”

Ineffectively Testing the Effectiveness of TSA

TSA personnel in the SPOT program (Screening Passengers with Observational Techniques) have come under repeated, unjustified criticism. Their failure to catch people pretending to be bad guys is totally irrelevant to whether they will actually catch the real bad guys. Lets get back to the real world.  Money smugglers, weapons smugglers, and much more rarely, terrorists try to get through airport security and not get SPOTted. My research and the research of many other scientists found that when there’s a lot to lose (death or imprisonment) emotions are generated which are very hard to conceal and often leak out in what I call micro-expressions. The SPOT personnel are trained to identify these and many other signs of emotional overload. When there is not only the threat of dire punishment for failure but great reward promised for success whether it be money or 72 virgins it puts a lot of pressure on people’s ability to think, producing cognitive overload, and subtle changes in speech. The SPOT people are trained to detect the subtle signs of emotional and cognitive overload. Of course they didn’t catch the play-actors. They had nothing to lose and nothing to gain if their “bombs” were detected.  There was no cognitive or emotional overload. I am all for testing it, but lets not do it in such a shoddy, half-baked, invalid fashion. That only wastes government money and smears a valid, needed layer of airport security. In a never publicly released study by the American Institute of Research, people identified by the TSA SPOTters were fifty times more likely to be wanted felons or smugglers than those selected at random. The evidence is in, the system is working, let’s be grateful for this layer of security.

5 Signs of Lying That Aren’t as Foolproof as You’d Think

As seen on Yahoo Health by Temma Ehrenfeld

Think you can spot a liar? Think again. 

Too bad every liar isn’t Pinocchio, with a tell-all nose. But do our faces give lying away in more subtle ways? The answer is often yes — though the science of exactly how is surprisingly complex.

For many people, lying is stressful — so you might think that that stress would reveal itself blatantly via body language. But supposedly obvious “giveaways” aren’t reliable indicators of dishonesty, experts say. Unease could have many causes.

5 Signs of LyingThat’s not to say having a strange feeling about the way someone is acting doesn’t mean something. If someone’s body language is making your gut shout “liar,” investigate further. After all, research suggests that intuitions about lying may be more accurate than conscious judgment. In one study, participants watched videos of “suspects” in a mock-crime interview, some of whom were lying. They were able to pick out the liars only 43 percent of the time, less than by chance. In a separate test of unconscious associations, however, they were more likely to link the liars to words like “untruthful” and “dishonest.”

Think you can spot a liar? Here are five supposed “tells” that aren’t as foolproof as you may think.


It’s the classic sign of lying. However, “liars generally don’t appear to be more fidgety,” says Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored a large meta-analysis of studies of lying. In fact, “some truthful people who know they’re under suspicion will fidget,” points out world-renowned lying expert Paul Ekman, author of Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.


Lying can require more concentration than usual. Some research suggests that people blink less when they’re thinking harder — for example, when they’re recalling an eight-digit number, compared to one with four digits. In experiments in which some people were instructed to lie and others weren’t, the liars blinked less. But … it depends why you’re lying and how you feel. Anxiety can cause more blinking, says DePaulo, especially if “people were lying about a transgression.”

Dilated Pupils

Dilated pupils are another indication of tension and concentration. This can show up both when liars are thinking hard and when they’re feeling anxious. However, even with an odd sign like this, you can also get “false-positives,” since people can be highly anxious and overthinking the details even when they’re innocent.

Eye Contact

DePaulo found that liars avoid eye contact when they’re highly motivated not to be caught. Let’s say you’re questioning your S.O. about something, and he locks eyes with you during his denial. He could still be lying, but he isn’t anxious about it — maybe because he knows you don’t have hard evidence about his wrongdoing.

Differences in the Way a Person Acts

“She just seems different. I know my girlfriend/wife/sister/mother, and that’s not the way she acts.” We think that because we know intimately how someone usually sounds and moves, we’ll notice tell-tale differences when he or she is lying. Alas, that’s not so — just the opposite. “When we become friends, lovers, or parents, we become blind,” Ekman says. In Behind the Door of Deceit, DePaulo describes research showing that sometimes a perfect stranger can beat romantic partners at detecting each other’s lies

So if these supposed “tells” aren’t really tells at all, how can you catch a liar?

Ekman argues that the key is to catch subtle, fleeting, or tiny micro-expressions — expressions that come and go on people’s faces so quickly you normally wouldn’t notice them, unless you knew to look for them. Ekman zeroed in on these most-minute expressions while he was devising a coding system for facial muscle movements (part of his research in developing a complete list of facial expressions). Examining videotapes, he caught movements that lasted as short as a 20th of a second. These quick, usually unnoticed expressions, he says, tend to reveal emotions that we want to conceal.

Ekman gives the example of the wife of a murder victim. As the police interrogate her, she might be earnestly cooperative, but flash a micro-expression of anger at a particular question. Is she angry because the question is exposing a lie? Let’s say she smiles ever-so-briefly for no obvious reason. Is she smiling with triumph?

On the other hand, her attempt to conceal her emotion may be normal social behavior. She could be angry at the police because she wants privacy. She might be smiling at a happy memory she shared with her husband before he died.

It is possible to learn how to recognize and detect these signs in real time — Ekman says you can master the skill after four days of training, and offers instructional videos to do so. He cautions against relying on intuitions that someone is lying, since we’re all prey to our assumptions and prejudices. Sharpen your eye instead: Although you may not become Sherlock Holmes, training could help you see more, especially subtle expressions, which are brief but not micros. Lifted eyebrows, for example, show surprise. If just the inner corner of an eyebrow goes up, you may be seeing an early stage of sadness.

As seen on Yahoo Health by Temma Ehrenfeld 5 Signs of Lying That Aren’t as Foolproof as You’d Think

The Science of ‘Inside Out’

As seen on the New York Times

FIVE years ago, the writer and director Pete Docter of Pixar reached out to us to talk over an idea for a film, one that would portray how emotions work inside a person’s head and at the same time shape a person’s outer life with other people. He wanted to do this all in the mind of an 11-year-old girl as she navigated a few difficult days in her life.

As scientists who have studied emotion for decades, we were delighted to be asked. We ended up serving as scientific consultants for the movie, “Inside Out,” which was recently released.

Our conversations with Mr. Docter and his team were generally about the science related to questions at the heart of the film: How do emotions govern the stream of consciousness? How do emotions color our memories of the past? What is the emotional life of an 11-year-old girl like? (Studies find that the experience of positive emotions begins to drop precipitously in frequency and intensity at that age.)

“Inside Out” is about how five emotions — personified as the characters Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy — grapple for control of the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley during the tumult of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. (One of us suggested that the film include the full array of emotions now studied in science, but Mr. Docter rejected this idea for the simple reason that the story could handle only five or six characters.)

Riley’s personality is principally defined by Joy, and this is fitting with what we know scientifically. Studies find that our identities are defined by specific emotions, which shape how we perceive the world, how we express ourselves and the responses we evoke in others.

But the real star of the film is Sadness, for “Inside Out” is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness. Riley loses friends and her home in her move from Minnesota. Even more poignantly, she has entered the preteen years, which entails a loss of childhood.

We do have some quibbles with the portrayal of sadness in “Inside Out.” Sadness is seen as a drag, a sluggish character that Joy literally has to drag around through Riley’s mind. In fact, studies find that sadness is associated with elevated physiological arousal, activating the body to respond to loss. And in the film, Sadness is frumpy and off-putting. More often in real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help.

Those quibbles aside, however, the movie’s portrayal of sadness successfully dramatizes two central insights from the science of emotion.

First, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.

But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation. For example, studies find that when we are angry we are acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice.

We see this in “Inside Out.” Sadness gradually takes control of Riley’s thought processes about the changes she is going through. This is most evident when Sadness adds blue hues to the images of Riley’s memories of her life in Minnesota. Scientific studies find that our current emotions shape what we remember of the past. This is a vital function of Sadness in the film: It guides Riley to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity.

Second, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals.

Other studies find that it is anger (more so than a sense of political identity) that moves social collectives to protest and remedy injustice. Research that one of us has conducted has found that expressions of embarrassment trigger others to forgive when we’ve acted in ways that momentarily violate social norms.

This insight, too, is dramatized in the movie. You might be inclined to think of sadness as a state defined by inaction and passivity — the absence of any purposeful action. But in “Inside Out,” as in real life, sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss. We see this first in an angry outburst at the dinner table that causes Riley to storm upstairs to lie alone in a dark room, leaving her dad to wonder what to do.

And toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

“Inside Out” offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul Ekman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Note from the Paul Ekman Group (PEG): The face offers the best window on how people are feeling. Improving your ability to recognize emotions will increase the intimate understanding that allows you to connect with other people. Research found that people who learn to spot micro expressions are also better liked by co-workers. We provide tools to spot concealed emotions and a new tool to learn how to best respond to how another person is feeling on our website


Paul Ekman on Torture

As seen in the Huffington Post

I was approached soon after 9/11 by a senior psychologist, who held office in APA, to participate in the government’s newly developing interrogation program. I declined, although I had already developed techniques for establishing better emotional connections with interviewees, through my work on nonverbal behavior, facial expressions and gestures. And I had done research on what punishments work best on prisoners.

In the late 1950’s when I was drafted into the Army, serving as First Lieutenant and Chief Psychologist at Ft. Dix New Jersey I performed an experiment to evaluate the most effective punishment for AWOL offenses. I was able to match prisoners on a number of variables, randomly assigning half a month in the stockade (the standard punishment up until then) or three hours a day of extra labor but no imprisonment. Recidivism six month later was 60% higher among those who went to the stockade, and based on that finding the Commanding General changed the standard punishment for first AWOL to extra labor but no imprisonment.

Such an experiment cannot be performed now to evaluate the competing advocates of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture and those, like me, advocating humane interviewing. (I did get the chance once to train interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and they reported back that my humane, emotional connection interviews were very successful.) If we can’t run an experiment to find out, and many including me would argue that even conducting such an experiment in which so-called harsh methods were to be used on some of the prisoners violates ethical guidelines, then we must do the right thing, take the ethical path, do what is expected of democracies. Only humane interviewing should be conducted by any member of APA.

Paul Ekman Alumni Awards

This summer, Dr. Paul Ekman received two awards from two universities dear to his heart:

UCSF’s 150th Anniversary Alumni Excellence Award and University of Chicago’s Professional Achievement Award

Below are photos from both ceremonies.

Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman by Jason Smith



Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues

John Pearse Website
John Pearse, Ph.D
Vice President of Paul Ekman Group

Unfortunately terrorism is all around us as recent global events continue to demonstrate.  Across America, throughout Europe and around the world people took to the streets to peacefully protest against the terrorist atrocities that had left 17 dead in Paris, France last week. The themes emerging from this massive world-wide show of public support for the freedom of expression and in the wider sense liberty itself are two-fold: it is about terrorism, organised terrorism and not religion and secondly that if we are to defeat it then we must do so together. In my new book – Investigating Terrorism – I also reinforce these themes by bringing together an array of multi-disciplinary experts and seek to dispel a number of the many myths that exist especially in relation to suicide attacks.

I have assembled leading counter terrorism experts from the world of politics – who are responsible for drafting new terrorist legislation; law enforcement officers who are tasked with exercising such powers; lawyers, both defence and prosecution who are charged with examining and contesting the facts of each case and psychologist who help us to understand the thought processes and personality characteristics behind such terrorist behaviour. One of the most common myths about suicide attacks is that it is an Islamic phenomenon but any historian will tell you that this simply is not the case. Indeed, there is a very strong argument to suggest that the story of Samson, in the Old Testament of the Bible, may well be the first recorded account of such an act.

You will remember that Samson had been captured by the Philistines and he asked the young lad that was leading him to position him between the pillars that supported the main hall where everybody was congregated and the Bible records that he said “Let me die with the Philistines.” And using all his strength he quite literally brought the house down and killed all the men, women and children present – about three thousand (see Judges 16: 26-30 and Chapter 9 of my book). In terms of the fatalities – how does this compare with the 9/11 atrocities? Interestingly, the Bible does not condemn this action rather it portrays it as an act of redemption and vengeance. More recently, in World War II readers may be familiar with actions of the Japanese pilots who undertook ‘Kamikaze’ (suicide) missions against the American fleet in the Pacific.  What is perhaps less well known is that the very first ‘Kamikaze’ act was undertaken by an American pilot – Captain Richard Fleming at the Battle of Midway in 1942 whose actions greatly impressed the Japanese senior command.

So it is very important to remain detached and to stay well informed when discussing suicide acts and the many myths that pervade this subject – it is not a question of religion – it is most definitely a very effective and successful tactic undertaken by organisations – terrorist organisations. In my book I dedicate a chapter to analysing the first and to date, the only ‘ticking bomb’ interview undertaken with a failed suicide bomber in Western Europe. After four bombs had been placed around London the bombers made their escape but the first one captured knew where the bomb making material was to be found and the location of the other bombers – would he reveal these details? In this unique environment normal interviewing practices can be suspended on the grounds of public safety – the resultant exchange between the British detectives and the Somali born detainee was to become the subject of many legal arguments – exhausting the entire appeal process in the UK and reaching the highest court in Europe – a very different process from the American experience (see chapters 1-5 in my book).

Some time ago I was very fortunate that as a psychologist and senior detective in the Counter Terrorism Command at New Scotland Yard I was invited to research and interview failed suicide bombers in the Middle East. One striking fact that I immediately recognised was to learn that a crucial factor in the success of any suicide attack was the role of the young boy or girl whose task was to lead the bomber to the desired location – I immediately thought of Samson and how so little had changed in that part of the world from Biblical times!

Another important element in preventing suicide attacks was the need to employ alert and watchful private security guards at busy public locations as they had met with considerable success in preventing attacks and raising the alarm. According to the guards themselves they only had to look at the faces of people to know when something was wrong. Whilst many of the guards were unable to accurately identify or articulate the actual emotion displayed the Paul Ekman Group has developed a world renowned suite of on-line tools that will greatly improve your ability to recognise and discern even the most fleeting of emotional expressions click here.

-John Pearse

Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues – published by Wiley Blackwell is available at

‘How can we be more effective in bringing terrorists to justice in ways that uphold our legal traditions? This book provides crucial clues drawn from highly experienced prosecution and defence lawyers, detectives, security experts and forensic psychologists. I highly recommend it for all who want to understand and respond to the serious threat from jihadist terrorism over the years to come.’
-Professor Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and Director GCHQ

‘Edited and written by experts in their fields and with a plethora of experience, the authors know what they are talking about. This book is a must for those who need to know, those who are interested to know, and those who think they know it all already.’
-Susan Young, Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, Broadmoor Hospital, West London Mental Health Trust

Catching Liars

August 2014

From a distance of twenty feet, without your knowledge or consent, the surveillance cameras, microphones and physiological sensors apply computer algorithms to process your gait, facial expression, gestures, voice, posture, heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature — determining within seconds if you are lying or telling the truth.

“Diogenes,” the lie catching machine in the sci-fi screenplay a friend and I wrote twenty years ago, made no mistakes.  And its mere existence changed the way people interacted: Bargainers would no longer agree to meet in person, juries became superfluous, salesmen were forced to be honest in their claims, and suspicions of marital infidelity were resolved in an instant, for a fee.

In real life, we aren’t quite there yet, but our recent research on truth and falsehood is getting closer than I ever expected it would. I’ve spent nearly forty years studying how changes in demeanor (face, body and voice) might betray a lie. I focused on serious lies in which life, freedom, reputation, or the continuation of an important relationship were at stake, rather than the white lies of everyday life such as politeness, flattery or exaggeration. The original impetus was to help doctors evaluate whether psychiatric inpatients claiming to no longer feel depressed were lying so that they could commit suicide free of the hospital’s supervision. Responding to interest from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, my associate and I (the late professor Maureen O’Sullivan) extended our focus to lies about taking money, or false claims about a strongly held political opinion. Since 9/11 our experiments have focused on the lies told by political extremists, in hope that our results will have relevance to anti-terrorism. We set the rewards for success and the punishment for failure as high as ethics committees permit.

We have not found the modern equivalent of Pinocchio’s nose, nothing in face, body, voice, speech or physiology that is unique to lying, never present when someone is worried, thoughtful, cautious, perplexed or nervous. While some still pursue that goal (and a few claim to have found it), I doubt that such a silver bullet exists.  Instead our measurements of facial muscular movement, gestures, voice and speech uncover what I call hot spots, signs that something is amiss; that the full story is not being told.

The typical hot spot is a momentary conflict between the words spoken and the sound of the voice, the gesture, or the facial expression. Just as important are very brief micro expressions that can flash across a person’s face in 1/25 of a second. A micro looks exactly like a normal facial expression except it is so fast that most people don’t see it. It always is a sign of a concealed emotion, sometimes deliberately concealed sometimes-repressed emotion. Just as important is a slight edge in the voice that doesn’t fit calm words.

In our experiments in which there are only two possibilities — someone is either lying or telling the truth — hot spots allow high accuracy in distinguishing one from the other. In real life hot spots occur for many reasons, such as remembering an argument at breakfast with your spouse, worrying about missing a flight, or annoyance at the screening process at an airport. Lying to conceal malicious intent or past wrongdoing is only one, and not the most frequent reason that hot spots occur where terrorists might lurk.

Nevertheless learning how to identify hot spots can be useful in figuring out where to probe further in an interview, or who among the millions each day who wait on line in our airports to ask a few questions about the purpose of their trip. We are training law enforcement and national security officials, here and in England to identify hot spots, emphasizing that they are not signs of lying, only that something is amiss. People can learn to recognize the micro expressions in an hour, and the benefit lasts. We don’t know how long it takes to learn to recognize the many other hot spots, who learns the most and the least, and when a refresher course is needed. Paul Ekman International is a company that provides four day courses on evaluatating truthfulness and a 3 day course on emotional skills, primarily to the corporate sphere in many countries.

Another line of active research is trying to develop the modern equivalent of our sci-fi Diogenes lie-catching machine. The hardware and software that identifies hot spots in real time isn’t ready for prime time now, but it is progressing. Soon automated hot spot detectors could evaluate facial expressions and bodily physiology instantly, from a distance. Before it is deployed as a substitute for a highly trained human observer it is essential to determine whether it is as accurate as such an observer, and if it were to be used as an aid rather than a substitute, that it doesn’t distract and lower observer performance.

The ACLU has complained that hot spots aren’t shown just by terrorists, but also lead to the apprehension of wanted felons, illegal immigrants, or smugglers. I am afraid there is no terrorist-specific hot spot, but I am not personally convinced it is bad to identify others breaking the law. Another criticism is the possibility that members of minority groups, especially those whose names or appearance suggest they are Arabs, may be more uncomfortable in places such as airports, and for that reason may show up more often as suspicious. That is possible, and even warning about it during training may not be sufficient to avoid such mistakes. However, I favor deploying an independent organization to check periodically on the performance of those doing hot spot detection, to make certain they are not slipping into racial profiling.

Another concern is what happens to the information picked up by an automatic hot spot detector.  Suppose the heart rate and blood pressure readings strongly suggest someone is on the verge of a heart attack. After a warning that an emergency room might be a smarter destination that an airplane, what will happen to this private medical information? Regulations need to be developed to insure that it is erased rather than secretly sold to employers and insurance companies.

People around the world are already using and teaching these new approaches to identifying people who might intend harm. There is no putting this Genie back in the bottle. The issue is how to use these new methods wisely, cautiously, and with safeguards for privacy and civil liberties.

Paul Ekman, a retired professor of psychology at UC San Francisco, has been studying facial expressions and gestures for more than 40 years. He is the author of many books. His most recent book Moving Towards Global Compassion is available as an e-book at

Updated from an article by Ekman for the Washington Post in 2006.

To receive updates on news regarding facial recognition technology,  Like and Follow the Paul Ekman Group on Facebook and Twitter.

#AskEkman: How do I become a facial expression expert?

July 2014

The most popular questions we receive at the Paul Ekman Group are questions relating to which courses and universities are best equipped to promote a career in becoming an expert in facial expressions and emotion. The answer to this question depends on what level of education you are seeking, and what topic interests you. To help you on your journey, we’ve put together a series of short answers from Dr. Paul Ekman.

If you are in high school and are interested in emotion:

Apply to a college or university at which there is an expert on emotion and/or facial expression. The Psychology Department at UC Berkeley has four faculty members who work on emotion, one of whom studies facial expression. The University of Wisconsin has a program on emotion and compassion, with emphasis on neuroscience substrates. If you are really ambitious, here is our list of over 250 major contributors to the field of emotion.

If you are an undergraduate, interested in emotion and/or facial expressions:

I assume you are not already at a college where there is an emphasis on emotion, so you’re going to have to do a lot of reading. If facial expression is your major interest, check the work of Professor Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley. If it’s the physiology that drives or underlies emotion, try Professor Robert Levenson, UC Berkeley and Professor Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin.

If you are seeking a graduate school to obtain a Ph.D.:

We recommend the same two universities above, UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. But there are many other choices; emotion is a popular topic these days!

If you are high school student or undergraduate interested in deception:

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to recommend. Mark Frank in the Communications department at University of Buffalo, and Steve Porter at University of British Columbia, Okenagan Campus, both do research on the behavioral clues relevant to lying. Porter has challenged some of my work, but I respect his work. Frank is continuing many of the studies and approach I initiated.

If you are not currently a student:

PEG has established an international network of Licensed Delivery Centers (LDCs) through Paul Ekman International which deliver courses in Emotional Skills and Competencies (ESaC) and Evaluating Truthfulness and Credibility (ETaC). These cater to a wide range of professionals in their public courses and corporate programs. Please contact Paul Ekman International for further information, dates, and locations near you.

We wish you much success in your studies! For more information and helpful links, please visit our FAQ page.

To have your questions answered by Dr. Paul Ekman, submit them by using the hashtag #AskEkman on Twitter.











Is Snowden Lying?

June 2014

Many readers have asked whether Snowden was lying in his recent NBC-TV interview, knowing I have worked for the government and corporations spotting lies by how someone behaves. When I attempt to evaluate truthfulness I need to be the one asking the questions, able to ask follow up questions, allowed as many hours as I need, and the person I am interviewing must not have had time to prepare or be coached. Even if these requirements were to be met, I maintain a strict policy: I never evaluate anyone involved in litigation. In our judicial system it is the responsibility of the jury not an expert to determine truthfulness, difficult as that often is when only yes/no questions can be asked, and there is plenty of time for answers to be prepared. So, under these circumstances, I simply cannot comment on Snowden’s veracity. Still, some of Snowden’s claims merit consideration.

Snowden claims longer and more serious employment than was previously revealed by the government, and many attempts to be a whistle-blower, which, he says, were met with resistance by the NSA. The next day after the NBCTV interview the NSA denied these claims, as did Senator Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate committee that oversees intelligence capabilities. We don’t know who to believe.

Snowden claims he would not be granted a fair, open trial with access to all the charges and witnesses against him if he were to return to the United States. That is probably true, because a public trial, or even a closed trial in which all the information against him were to be revealed, might help our enemies if they were to find out. This leaves Snowden in limbo, the resolution of which has not been suggested by anyone.

Snowden also said that our mobile phones can be turned on by the intelligence agencies of the industrialized world, without our knowledge or consent, to listen to what we are saying. No one has denied this claim! When I was a Fulbright lecturer at Leningrad State University in 1979, people whose homes I visited would immediately put their telephones in the bathroom, convinced that otherwise the KGB would hear what we said. Do we need to take the same precaution against the NSA?

No one is claiming Snowden forged the NSA documents he stole, which revealed previously unknown threats to privacy. I would like to see an impartial judicial authority, perhaps an international one, review those revelations, charged with suggesting regulations of whose privacy can be invaded without notice or consent. They might also consider how to resolve the question of whether there is any way for Snowden to get a fair trial, and if not how should the issue of whether he should be punished be resolved.

We need public discussion of the tradeoffs involved if and when privacy is invaded, to be certain the public knows what is being done, if not in every specific instance, then in general. If what I am suggesting is not feasible there must be some way to change where this matter presently stands – in a state of confusion about charges and countercharges.


For more on Privacy Invasion, read “Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?” by Paul Ekman featured on his blog, Face It!

Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?

May 2014

Where you go on the Internet, where you travel on city streets, that and more is all up for grabs

Google? NSA? Walmart? It soon may be possible for them to track your emotions in addition to your whereabouts without your knowledge or consent. No regulations from the government to prevent massive surveillance are on the horizon. Already companies are selling software that identifies your name just by looking at your face. The New York Times Business section on Sunday May 18th ran a front page article about the threat of privacy invasion now that software programs identify not only who you are by using hidden cameras to scan your face but then also link to your Facebook posts and other sources of information about you which you didn’t know you were providing.

The next step in privacy invasion

The Times article didn’t mention the next step in privacy invasion, just around the corner – new computer programs that can link your identity to how you are feeling at the moment. What was your emotional reaction when you read the latest news about … Edward Snowden, Kim Kardashian, or President Obama? How did you feel about the latest packaging of Tide, or Trojans? Which TV ad for which politician got the biggest emotional kick from you?

Automated computer recognition of moment-to-moment emotions, even attempts to hide emotions, is nearly here. Crude or incomplete versions are already in use, and better ones will soon be available. I know about all of this having developed the first comprehensive offline tool for measuring facial expressions, and my participation in a company that is developing automated emotion recognition based on my work.

People wearing Google Glass may know not only who you are but also how you are feeling

Despite Google’s attempt to prevent this use of their product, something similar will become available from a copycat manufacturer that reveals the same information. The real threat to privacy comes from the surveillance cameras that are nearly everywhere, when they are able to know our most personal feelings about whatever we are looking at, or the emotions that we are feeling as we remember something from our past, recent or distant. These automated “emotion sensors” won’t know what triggered our emotions, just what emotions we are feeling.

The clever use of this invasive technology will attempt to provoke us by triggering engineered emotional events, without prior consent for having our emotions triggered, or having our emotions read, or having our emotions linked to our identity and everything that is already stored about us (what we buy, where we go, who we live with, and who knows what else).

Can our privacy be rescued from invasion?

Can our identity be hidden, the emotions shown on our face not read?

Joseph J. Atick, one of the pioneers of identity recognition, was quoted in the  N.Y. Times as saying that companies using face recognition to identify us should post notices they are doing so; they should seek permission from a consumer before identifying them, and use that information only for the purposes the consumer has consented to. Those are very modest protections, in my judgment, but still opposed by some of the companies selling the recognition software.

More protection is needed when it comes to reading our emotions

Our consent has to be obtained by more than a public notice that it is being done, and more than clicking on a website’s fine print. A specific, explicit consent to have our emotions monitored by a particular company for a specific purpose, that is time limited, probably to one- or two-hour period, should be obtained. Reading children’s emotions should require parental consent for each occasion it is done. And when a government agency such as the NSA reads our emotions, some regulation, better than ones currently in place, need to be established to protect our privacy.

I am a face scientist, not an attorney, data wonk or legislator. I hope this blog will alert all those responsible for the protection of the public to the urgent need for establishing privacy guidelines.


Brian Williams of NBC News talks with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the global impact and debate sparked by his revelations. Read more about this exclusive here.

Spotting Poker Bluffs

May 2014

The game has changed now that TV broadcasts people playing poker.

In the old days not a word was spoken, and that tradition continues today in some venues. But lies had to be spotted; bluffs called. I learned about this from winners of the International Poker Tournament held each year in Las Vegas. It costs $15,000 to enter the fray, and then, after two weeks of serious gaming, the winner walks away with a million bucks.

Two of the winners, in different years, sought my advice knowing that I am an expert in spotting liars. I told them I had not played poker since junior high, and had never watched poker being played. They thought that didn’t matter. It turned out they were wrong.

You can’t win without bluffing, but you can’t win if you can’t spot the bluffers.

The key to winning, each said, was spotting bluffs. Once you know they have a bad hand, if you have a good one, you keep raising the stakes causing the bluffers to lose a lot of money when they are called. I asked them how they did it, given what each said about what happens during a game. Everyone wears large dark glasses, blocking most of the face. Not a word is spoken. That worried me since I had found that detecting lies using my methods got easier the more words that were spoken. What did they rely on if they couldn’t see most of the face and no clues from the words or sound of the voice?

Cards are picked up and laid down, cards are examined, and a movement of the cards on the table signals a wish for another card. They had learned the differences in those few movements to detect when someone is bluffing. But they were not going to tell me how they did it. They wanted me to tell them anything additional they could use to spot the bluffer.

Are poker winners wizards of deception detection?

I tested each of them by showing them a videotape I had made in which you saw 30 people lying or telling the truth. Some were lying about whether they were watching a film of gruesome surgery or beautiful flowers. Some were lying about a strongly held opinion about the justification of capital punishment. And others lied about whether they had taken money which was not theirs. I had shown this test to nearly 15,000 people in every profession you can think of. Over 95% of the people I tested did not much better than chance. But would these poker winners be in the 5%, who I called the wizards of deception detection? No; they were in with the 95%! They were highly skilled in interpreting a very special vocabulary of movements in this silent game of poker they played. Those movements did not occur when people were interviewed.

If people talk while they play their hand, if they claim to have a great hand when they don’t, then what I rely on to catch liars – very brief (micro) and very small (mini) facial expressions, gestural slips, voice changes, and so forth — will probably work. But the stakes have to be high: there has to be a lot to lose or gain. And there has to be conversation during and about the game. For the moment, the silent game of poker remains a mystery to most of us.  Mum’s the word.  And it’s also the best how-to tip for playing poker and getting away with bluffs.

Authorized Lying and Uncovering Deceptions

No one objects to trying to spot poker bluffers; in a sense it is authorized by the rules of the game. Catching liars is also authorized when interrogators question criminal suspects. Although told they have to answer truthfully, confessing crimes they committed, interrogators expect suspects will lie if they think they can get away with it. Although torture is not allowed, interrogators can trick the suspect to get at the truth. Our supreme court has upheld convictions based on confessions obtained by lying to the suspect – for example, claiming another suspect has already confessed, or their fingerprints were on the gun, when neither is true. (Incidentally, that is not allowed in England and most other European countries).

Medical patients are not always truthful, sometimes concealing problems they are embarrassed about having, and often lying about whether they really did use all the medications that were prescribed. No one objects when the doctors or nurses uncover such deceptions, but unlike the interrogator-suspect context, here it is done to help the person engaging in concealment.

Where does this leave us on lie catching?

Whether we should expect to be misled and feel authorized to catch liars is less certain in other arenas. Should we expect someone bent on seduction to be truthful about how many previous partners they have had, or how much undying love they feel? Will our friends tell us about our unwelcome or unattractive mannerisms? Often it is not clear what to expect and whether lie catching is needed or justifiable. That is the ambiguity we live with about truth and lies.

Visit our Training Tools page to learn more about how you can train yourself to recognize micro and subtle expressions and improve your ability to ‘read’ others.

Darwin’s Claim of Universals in Facial Expression Not Challenged

March 2014
Paul Ekman, Emeritus Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Dacher Keltner, Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s recent contribution (New York Times, February 28, 2014) seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges[ing] the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.” Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press. This is not the first time that Feldman-Barrett publicized her views in the press. We didn’t respond then, but feel compelled to do so now so that the public is not misled, and is apprised of the broader, Darwin-inspired science of emotional expression many scientists are working on today.

First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that all facial expressions are universal, only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly one-hundred years later Silvan Tomkins helped Ekman and Carrol Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list. In the late sixties, Izard and Ekman in separate studies each showed photographs from Tomkins’ own collection, to people in various literate cultures, Western and Non-Western. They found strong cross cultural agreement in the labeling of those expressions. Ekman closed the loophole that observing mass media might account for cross cultural agreement by studying people in a Stone Age culture in New Guinea who had seen few if any outsiders and no media portrayals of emotion. These preliterate people also recognized the same emotions when shown the Darwin-Tomkins set. The capacity for humans in radically different cultures to label facial expressions with terms from a list of emotion terms has replicated nearly 200 hundred times.

Feldman Barrett is right to ask whether individuals in radically different cultures provide similar interpretations of facial expressions if allowed to describe the expressions on their own terms, rather than a list of emotion terms. Haidt and Keltner did such a study comparing the free responses to the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions and some other expressions, with people in rural India and the U.S. Once again the findings of universality were clear cut, and evidence of universality in the expression of embarrassment was also found. The evidence on the judgment of the Darwin-Tomkins facial expressions is robust; so we suppose is Feldman-Barrett’s evidence for the expressions not covered in the Darwin-Tomkins set. She has missed that point, not understanding the difference between unselected and theoretically selected facial expressions.

Feldman-Barrett also ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. Instead what people actually do, spontaneous facial expressions, is measured in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and Friesen published what might be the first such study comparing the spontaneous facial expressions shown by Japanese and American subjects in a private and public setting, finding universal facial expressions – the Darwin-Tomkins set—in private, and different expressions in public. Since then over a hundred studies have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions, enough to justify two volumes reprinting the articles of dozens of scientists by Oxford University Press.

Another large body of research has established different patterns of physiology – in bodily changes generated by Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activity and in brain activity – coinciding with the appearance of the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions. Separate, well-replicated studies, have also shown that voluntarily generating the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions produced distinct changes in ANS and brain activity! Still other studies have related the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions to distinct responses, including cortisol, oxytocin, dopamine, and the cytokine response that is part of the immune system. This work, ignored in Feldman-Barrett’s critiques, suggests that facial expressions not only are informative about individuals’ feelings, but patterns of neurophysiological activation in their bodies. Darwin emphasized the importance of some universal facial expressions in establishing the unity of mankind, challenging the racist assertions of his time that Europeans had descended from a more advanced progenitor that Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.

Are there universal facial expressions?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.40.08 PMTake our simple test to learn more about facial expressions of emotion.