You're on a first date with a woman and you say something HILARIOUS. She laughs! This is clearly going perfectly.
Or IS it? As she's humoring you, you notice her eyes aren't squinting and forming wrinkles. Also, after one chuckle her mouth purses shut into almost a frown. Then, her eyes dart away. The whole thing takes less than a second, but one thing's for sure: you, sir, are going home alone.
Micro expressions -- short bursts of expressiveness on the face -- were first mentioned in a 1966 report by Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs. They're attributed to seven universal emotions shared by all human beings: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. And they come about when someone's trying to conceal their true feelings... like that woman sitting across from you on your date, who's trying to be polite but really doesn't think you're funny. Sorry.
There are actually experts who study this crazy stuff, which you may already know if you've ever caught an episode of Lie To Me. Deception decoders and facial-expression experts are totally legit, and can educate everyone from singles trying to figure out whether the first date is going well to cops in an interrogation room. You can walk around like a veritable psychic, sensing instantly how everyone around you really feels -- and what he or she may be hiding.
So who better to ask how to tell if someone's into you than Stu Dunn? He's a facial expressions expert, founder of SDL Behavioural Science Consultancy, and author of True Lies: A Guide To Reading Faces, Interpreting Body Language and Detecting Deception in the Real World. Dunn's firm helps people all over the globe better understand facial expressions and non-verbal behavior, and to become sleuths in their everyday lives by weeding out deception wherever it lurks. And now, he's going to tell you whether you stand a chance in hell with that doll you met on OKCupid.
How do micro-expressions work? Micro expressions occur when someone wants to hide a felt emotion. So it will always depend on the person (whether they care about hiding the emotion or not) and the situation (whether it would be bad for the person to be caught expressing that emotion, such as a child trying not to smile at a funeral) as to whether someone will leak an expression.
Emotions are immediate, automatic and unconscious reactions -- and are perhaps the closest thing humans have to a universal language. Truly felt emotions and expressions occur involuntarily, without thought or intention, where false expressions have to be displayed intentionally. The face is a dual system, showing intentional and involuntary emotions -- and sometimes a blended expression of genuine and fake displays. Put simply, the face displays what the person wants to show, and what the person wants to conceal.
So how can you tell if someone's lying?
As [micro-expressions pioneer Paul] Ekman discovered, expressions are likely to be false when they are asymmetrical, the duration of expression is either too long or too short, or the timing of the expression in relation to the speech is not synchronized. The face can also be a valuable source of information for detecting deceit, because the face can lie and tell the truth – and often does both at the same time.
What's the most fascinating element of this work? It has to be the ability to shift your angle in a conversation, based solely upon someone’s subtle reactions. For example, a salesperson asking for the sale who then sees negative emotion, knows to back up and discover what else is holding the customer back before trying to close again.
How reliable do you consider this science to be?
Charles Darwin was one of the first people known for researching emotion, believing emotions to be biological and universal. Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen studied universal emotions in Papua New Guinea, verifying that even cultures which have no contact with the outside world share the seven universal emotions... Therefore, the seven universal expressions are expressed by everyone, regardless of race, culture, age or gender. Studies done by David Matsumoto demonstrated that sighted and blind individuals produce the same facial muscle movements in response to emotional stimuli -- even when they are blind from birth. This indicates that emotions are innate; we are born with the knowledge of how to express these emotions through facial expressions.
Where do micro expressions come into play?
Micro expressions last less than 1/2 second, sometimes as fast as 1/25 of a second. Micro expressions are signs of concealed emotions that leak out when people are in high-stake situations but are trying to control their feelings. By high stake I mean situations where it is important whether the person shows an emotion. For example, someone being interviewed for a job: the applicant is motivated to come across well in order to obtain the job, so if they’re feeling a negative emotion such as contempt or disgust during the interview, they’re likely to try to hide it – which leaks out in the form of a micro expression.
They are also very reliable the an emotion is present -- however, the issue is to understand why the emotion is present.
What "tells" indicate someone's romantic interest? The face is only one piece to the puzzle, as other body language can confirm whether a subtle coy smile was in fact someone indicating they’re attracted to you. Positive smiling facial expressions are a good start though! Overall, interested parties will have open body language, if standing generally point one foot toward someone they’re interested in (or talking with). Playing with hair, sometimes grooming and hand to mouth gestures can be seen as signs also.
What "tells" indicate someone's LACK of romantic interest? If your date flashed contempt or disgust at you, it’s time to get the check! Also, if at least one of their feet is facing the exit, it could be an unconscious hint that they want to leave.
Do people give false indicators? What might these look like? The face doesn’t lie. So if someone is trying come across as all smiles however feeling anger inside, the face will show it in some way (tightening of the eyes, jaw clenching etc). Also, the eyes are a good indicator -- are their eyes also smiling (increasing the wrinkles around the crows feet area when smiling)?
You lock eyes across a crowded bar. What other signs do you look for? Mainly it’s what the eyes do. Looking someone up and down with a smile can say absolute volumes -- as well as smiling with the eyes.
Let's imagine someone wanted to find out if the person they had been with for a while was still interested in them. To judge micro expressions or facial expressions in general, is it best to ask very direct questions and then gauge the responses? Or does that make a person too self conscious to provide reliable expressions?
Direct questions are good -- as long as you know what the person’s response would be under normal circumstances versus under scrutiny. When you start your questions, you can look for facial expressions or body language that isn’t normally present. Keep in mind, they might be acting differently as they feel innocent and under attack also, so don’t be aggressive or accusing in your questions. The more at ease they are, the less they’ll know what you’re doing, and the easier it will be to detect any (if there are any) changes in behaviour on certain questions.
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Nicole Caldwell is Thrillist Sex & Dating Editor, binge-watched the entire series of Lie To Me in a weekend, and after talking to Stu is now spending far too much time scrutinizing the faces of everyone around her.