Does age or gender influence ability to interpret microexpressions? Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions that occur in response to specific emotions. Some people are able to interpret this form of nonverbal communication better than others. Reference: Scheve, T. Bookmark this to easily find it later.

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Microexpressions are lauded as a valid and reliable means of catching liars see Porter and ten Brinke, However, there are many reasons to question what I will call microexpression theory MET. For MET to be supported, several propositions must hold true: One, deception produces internal negative emotional experiences. Two, these internal experiences have associated outward expressions, including microexpressions.

Three, microexpressions are uncontrollable. Four, these expressions are reliable and valid indicators of deception. Five, microexpressions occur frequently enough to be detectable. Six, detected microexpressions successfully distinguish truth from deception. Let me address each of these propositions in turn. I will then offer an alternative theory accounting for truth versus deception indicators under multiple circumstances. During this discussion, I distinguish among emotional experiences , emotional expressions , and felt emotions.

Emotional experiences are internal events, not measured directly but inferred from measurable physiological states, and labeled as emotional expressions. Felt emotions are an individual's subjective reporting of one's state.

Most of the research on emotions during deception examines macro displays rather than fleeting microexpressions e. Ability to predict deception from the former does not equal ability to predict deception from the latter. So, yes, deception can produce the prototypical negative felt emotions of guilt, shame, sadness, and fear; but it can also produce positive emotions of relief, enjoyment, pleasure, and what is called duping delight—pleasure at succeeding with one's lies Ekman and Friesen, Additionally, prevaricators may experience arousal alone, without a felt emotion, or a blend of emotions, producing complex displays that range from non-aroused to highly aroused and unpleasant to pleasant Burgoon et al.

If stakes are low, liars may not experience any particular emotion, making them indistinguishable behaviorally from truth-tellers Hartwig and Bond, For example, fear entails seven different facial muscle movements.

However, as Barrett concluded, felt emotions lack a one-to-one correspondence with emotional expressions; there are no unique and specific somatovisceral changes that correspond to specific emotional expressions. Put another way, a single felt emotion can give rise to multiple expressions , and multiple felt emotions can give rise to the same expression. For example, felt fear can be displayed as anxiety, anger, contempt, or surprise.

Of 14 participants reporting exclusively disgust and 2, fear, only 1 and 2, respectively, showed the AUs associated with those felt emotions. Of 11 reporting surprise, none displayed the prototypical display. This study offered strong demonstration that felt and expressed emotions are often not aligned. Elsewhere, both a frustrating task and a delightful one elicited smiling from participants Hoque et al. Only at the risk of false positives, then, can one infer backward from observed displays that the sender is lying.

Put differently, deception does not reliably produce negative emotions and negative emotions do not reliably signal deception. Some are. But they appear to be partial or longer than the traditional definition of a microexpression. In an investigation of countermeasures, Hurley and Frank found that liars could not completely inhibit eyebrow or lip corner movement despite instructions to do so during a mock crime interrogation. In a comprehensive analysis of 78 public pleas for the return of missing children, deceivers failed to simulate sadness and grief to the degree truthful pleaders did and they leaked displays of happiness ten Brinke et al.

These, however, were full emotional expressions lasting nearly a second or longer. The microexpressions did not differ between truth and deception. The analysis of 1, expressions revealed that high-intensity emotions were harder to conceal than low-intensity ones during masking. Other expressions, such as the eyebrow flash or contempt, are inherently social, voluntary, and controllable Grammer et al.

As social signals, they are responsive to context. This is a central reason why microexpressions are a poor telltale sign of lying, because they can be masked, minimized, exaggerated, or neutralized, especially during deception Ekman, Masking involves disguising felt emotions, as in replacing fear with a show of defiance.

Minimizing involves suppressing the intensity of an expression. Exaggeration entails intensifying an expression, as in dialing up a display of surprise when accused of a transgression. Neutralizing entails concealing a felt emotion by eliminating its outward expression entirely.

This management of facial expressions follows what Ekman and Friesen labeled display rules. Cultures designate what emotions are appropriate, sanctioned, or punished if displayed; how such displays should appear; and the consequences of their display. This designation of social signals during deception has received considerable scholarly attention Driskell et al. Buller and Burgoon , labeled such regulation of deception expressions as strategic communication. Their argument, bolstered by numerous investigations, is that much of our nonverbal behavioral repertoire is manageable and managed.

More broadly, because facial expressions are part of a social signal system, they fulfill a variety of functions beyond simply revealing one's internal emotional reactions e. During social interaction, individuals purposely regulate and withhold expressions of felt emotions, and they enact expressions of emotions they do not feel. High stakes circumstances may prompt some leakage, though not necessarily of microexpressions. Contrariwise, Pentland et al.

Contempt and less intense smiling would be expected of liars, not truth-tellers. Numerous studies have found that deceivers often show appeasement or fake smiles that can be mistaken as signals of pleasure, comfort, or enjoyment. In their experiment comparing cheaters who lied with cooperators who were truthful , Okubo et al. These patterns would result in false positives.

Thus, some expressions like smiling are not uniquely associated with deception, and some emotional expressions—both micro and macro—can be associated with either truth or deception. False negatives are commonplace. Their subsequent analysis of these high-stakes pleadings found only six instances of microexpressions among deceivers and slightly more 8 among genuine pleaders ten Brinke and Porter, , obviating the role of microexpressions as sufficiently frequent or exclusive to catch deception.

However, testimony to the U. Congress revealed that only 0. Government Accountability Office, , and a ACLU report concluded the behavioral observation approach was based on biased, weak, and junk science Cushing, Recent empirical results are not encouraging. Porter et al. In particular, they could not distinguish sadness, fear or disgust—all emotions thought to be associated with deception. Pentland et al. These kinds of results led my colleagues and me to seek an alternative approach.

An alternative hypothesis that offers a reliable and valid set of indicators is what has been called the rigidity effect RE. RE postulates that extemporaneous deception under high stakes leads to an initial freeze response. If efforts to appear natural, expressive, and relaxed are overridden by attempts to suppress signs of discomfiture, the overcontrol will backfire. Early research focused on gestural and postural activity. Zuckerman et al. Several experiments confirmed that deceivers reduced their gestural, foot, and overall kinesic animation relative to truthtellers e.

As automated measurement advanced, more investigations pursued dynamic ocular and facial displays of emotion. These, too, showed the RE pattern of depressed activity. Studies of blink rates regularly found inhibition of blinking during deception Leal and Vrij, Hurley and Frank found that suppressing a given facial emotion during deception resulted in suppressing all facial expressions.

Two experiments Pentland et al. In the first experiment, guilty subjects completing a CIT which controls for cognitive load showed far less variance in four deception-relevant emotions disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise than did innocent subjects when responding to target questions.

In the second experiment, which measured variance in 10 facial movements, the guilty deceivers showed REs on 8 during presentation of target images. In a separate test Twyman et al. A question that needs to be resolved is the causal mechanisms that produce the RE. Does it reflect an involuntary reflex and defensive reaction associated with flight or fight Twyman et al. Sporer , and Twyman et al. If the inhibition of movement 1 is temporary while the deceiver decides how to respond, it may better reflect an adaptive response in line with IDT that is only evident if there is sufficient time for dynamics to be observed Duran et al.

This would make rigidity a misnomer. As already noted, immobility also is affected by distressful emotions e.

Speculatively, it can be hypothesized that degree of behavioral inhibition will be positively related to one's emotional distress and the severity of the stakes involved and inversely related to opportunity to plan and adapt responses. Needed are experiments that tease out these effects and identify significant moderators. Levine et al. The increased complexity despite reduced displacement found by Duran et al. The time has come to look beyond fleeting, infrequent and minuscule emotional expressions to movements themselves and not to their presence but their absence.

Deception produces positive as well as negative emotional experiences and sometimes no emotions at all. Felt emotions do not have a one-to-one correspondence to outward expressions, and microexpressions are especially rare, leading to false negatives and false positives.

Discerning initial rigidity and temporal patterning of facial behavior may greatly increase the viability of facial movements in catching a liar.

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and approved it for publication. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Army Research Office or the U. The U. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Government purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation herein.

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach just before a job interview or a presentation in front of a large audience? Of course, you have! You think the person is pleased and is smiling. But the person is actually showing signs of contempt!


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Body language varies from culture to culture, but microexpressions—very brief flashes of emotion across the face—are universal. So the ability to read them can be an effective took for navigating cross-cultural situations. If you study the common ones, look for them in your counterparts, and effectively interpret them, you have a better chance of avoiding misunderstandings and building bridges with people from different parts of the world. Body language varies significantly across cultures. What is considered rude or foolish in a Nordic country may be welcomed as warm and friendly in an African one.


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How to Get Better at Reading People from Different Cultures

Microexpressions are lauded as a valid and reliable means of catching liars see Porter and ten Brinke, However, there are many reasons to question what I will call microexpression theory MET. For MET to be supported, several propositions must hold true: One, deception produces internal negative emotional experiences. Two, these internal experiences have associated outward expressions, including microexpressions. Three, microexpressions are uncontrollable.

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