Trusting Can Be Dangerous

December 8, 2015

I have spent a lot of time in the last thirty years advising police, both regional and national, on how to evaluate truthfulness. You can see some of the training tools we used here. Police make mistakes, not just with Black people, although implicit or explicit racism causes a higher rate of mistaken judgments with people of color. The Innocence Project through DNA evidence has freed more than one hundred people from wrongful convictions. My job is to try to help the police make more accurate judgments. Most importantly, not to mistakenly judge innocent people as guilty of a crime.

Most police or LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officers as they like to be called) are suspicious, not trusting. This is a natural consequence of having the job of finding out who committed a crime. Distrust also is a product of the fact that some people in our society deliberately assassinate LEO’s. Yet if the police are not to misjudge the innocent, their suspiciousness has to be held in check. If they are to be protectors not warriors suspiciousness will be a hazard.

This work with the LEO’s has not made me suspicious; I have remained a trusting person in my dealings with family, friends, colleagues, and the employees of my small company. That is a deliberate choice.

We all have to choose which risk we want to take: misjudging the truthful person as lying; or, misjudging the liar as truthful. You can’t avoid both errors. I strongly advise everyone (perhaps with the exception of LEO’s and spies) to avoid the tragedy of misjudging a truthful person. Take the risks associated with trusting; you will be happier, probably live longer and have closer relationships, yet you may sometimes be taken advantage of. That is the cost; not a terrible one.

One further suggestion: try not to put people in the position where they will be tempted to lie. Let me use an actual example from my own family life. When my daughter was an adolescent there was a midnight curfew she was asked to observe when she was out with friends or on a date. One night I heard her come in at 1:30 in the morning, tiptoeing down the stairs to her bedroom. The next morning I was tempted to say, “how was the party?”, to see if she would volunteer that she had broken the curfew, and provide a justification for doing so or lie to me.

Instead I said: “Heard you come in well past your curfew,” (removing the temptation to lie about it), “What happened that you couldn’t make it on time?” Knowing from my own research that kids most often lie to avoid punishment for a misdeed, I wanted her to know that I was expecting there was an acceptable reason for not following the curfew, rather than having punishment (grounding her?) in mind.

I have heard her friends say to her that it must be hard having a father who was an expert in detecting lies. She would reply that she never had to lie to me. Of course I also avoided asking her about activities I knew she knew I would not approve of. The ground rule was that I only had the right to know about anything that put her or her friends in danger.

Our models as parents should be teachers of our offspring not policeman catching them in an offense. That stance will win us the trust of those we live and work with. We should do so knowing that sometimes we may be misled, but we will be trusted.

You can learn more about how to best respond to emotions with Paul Ekman’s Applied Training. Click here.

Ineffectively Testing the Effectiveness of TSA

November 11, 2015

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.

Dr. Paul Ekman on Torture

August 17, 2015

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 months 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.

#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!

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.