HUMAN GEOGRAPHY: Tiny Facial Giveaways May Indicate Lying or Worse

May 20, 2013 at 1:42 am Leave a comment

Reading Micro Expressions

U.S. Border Patrol photo

U.S. Border Patrol photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia – Think you know when someone’s lying – because they won’t meet your gaze, or they can’t sit still or they’re sweating profusely?

You’re probably wrong says San Francisco State University professor David Matsumoto.

“There is no such thing as a Pinocchio response,” Matsumoto, founder and director of the Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory at San Francisco State, told a Human Geography conference outside Washington, D.C. recently. “There’s no set of behaviors that reliably differentiate” between who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, he said. At least none that the average interrogator can spot.

Hundreds of studies conducted with thousands of participants in recent years indicate that the average accuracy rate for an individual to detects liars and truth tellers is just 54 percent. “Bottom line: we’re no better [at it] than flipping a coin,” Matsumoto said.

But his research indicates that there are tiny facial expressions – micro-expressions he calls them – that can give away what a person under stress is thinking. They’re hard to spot with the naked eye but readily visible on slow motion video.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

As an example, he showed video of a witness testifying at the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Some visible signs – breathing, blinking – indicated the witness was agitated. But when Matsumoto stopped the video, a facial expression not readily visible at normal speed was now apparent. Video usually shows movement at 30 seconds per second but the micro-expression image was captured in just three frames, indicating it took just one-tenth of a second.

Most people don’t see the changes but if they do “they don’t know what it is. But if I freeze frame on it, it’s very clear what his emotional state is,” Matsumoto said. And they “seem to be culturally universal,” he added.

He cautioned that such split second expressions are not a guaranteed indicator of lying but that the person being questions bears careful scrutiny. His program has been able to train law enforcement and other professionals how to spot micro-expressions.

Matsumoto is also studying whole body gestures and movements as indicators of intent and whether people who have experienced violent attacks can identify potentially violent persons by their facial expressions. So far his research indicates two types of potentially threatening facial expression: one contemplating premeditated assault (like an assassin or terrorist) and one indicating the loss of impulse control (someone who suddenly snaps and attacks.) But more research is needed, he said.

Human geography is a multi-discipline study of not only the physical nature of the earth but the people who live on it and how they relate among themselves and with others along political, economic, cultural, linguistic, geographic lines.

The two-day conference was sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA).

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