I’ve been interested in liars and lying for a long time, ever since a situation where I realized people close to me had been deceiving themselves and me for years. I’ve read and studied books on how to spot the lie and the liar, there’s a lot of information out there from body language and persuasion skills, to NLP patterns and interrogation techniques. But one of the most interesting techniques has to be spotting microexpressions as per Dr Cal Lightman in the TV series Lie to Me.
Tim Roth’s character is a deception expert who uses the momentary unconscious microexpressions we all exhibit to tell when people are lying. They boil down to Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happy, Sad, Contempt, Fear and Surprise. This fictional character’s abilities are actually based on real-life Dr Paul Ekman’s work. So I decided to give his online training tool a go, arguing to myself that these seven emotions were surely just what we teach children, everybody knows them, how hard can it be?
I first tried the demo and scored a measly 21% emotion recognition. I was shocked. The only emotions I could readily recognize were anger, disgust and happiness. It was a profound realization that I’m not emotionally aware as I think I am. I confuse sadness with anger – which explains, for example, why if I can’t make a sad person laugh straight away I basically get angry back at them. Appease the aggressor, then attack.
I signed up on the spot. Within a half hour’s training I could spot more emotions easily.
While dropping my son off at nursery I saw the straight lips and straight eyebrows that indicate fear. He regularly gets separation anxiety – the fear that his dad/mum won’t come back. It’s made me change the way I drop him off – rather than go in the car, I now walk him to nursery in the pram, we chat to his mum for part of the way, spot buses, dogs and birds and he’s generally a bit less anxious when we get to nursery – no tears this morning – a bit of bottom lip mind. But I’m working on it.
Interestingly I saw disgust on one of his little friend ‘s faces when I said hello to her in the morning, but when I saw her in the afternoon she couldn’t stop smiling at me. What this has already taught me is that as well as spotting deception you can respond much more to what those around you are feeling. But only if you don’t take the observed emotion personally and use it to understand the person’s needs.
The training is basically a series of neutral photos followed by one of the seven emotions. In training this is done at slow speed with voice over explaining what to look for. In the pre-test you set the speed of the flashed emotions. I settled for the highest speed and improved my score to 61%. A comprehensive review and then I tried the full test. I scored 71%. That’s 100% on happy, disgust and contempt. But 0% on things like sadness. It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to realize that as a 39 year old adult, I can’t recognize sadness in others (at least for split-second micro expressions, if you were blubbing in front of me right now, I’d catch your drift!).
It’s interesting and profound training and it reminds of some of the childcare books and flash cards that encourage you to teach emotions to your children. The program tells you to not take the test for another three months so that you don’t become overly familiar with the faces and predict the responses from memory.
That’s a good tip if you genuinely want to progress, although I would recommend going over it 24 hours later (minus the test) as well.
Sleeping on it, and then coming back to a subject when you’ve almost forgotten it are two scientifically proven ways of increasing your skills and recall.
If you get 80% in the test you’ll get a certificate of competence, if you get 95% you’ll get an ‘Expert’ certificate. I think the test and training could be improved by properly randomizing the final test with a baseline photo then morph to the emotion so that you can repeat it more quickly, other than that, I’m sold on the emotional recognition idea and looking forward to getting my Expert cert – one day!
Read Part Two: Get In Their Faces