Paul Ekman: Lie To Me

Last Updated Jan 4, 2010 5:51 PM EST

I have always wanted to hear Paul Ekman live since I first read Emotional Intelligence in the mid-1990s. In his book, Daniel Goleman posed the question as to whether there was a theory of core emotions. Goleman wrote he did not have an answer but said he was sure one existed due to the work that Paul Ekman had done recognising emotions in pre-literate societies. Finally at the Mind & Its Potential conference I heard Paul Ekman speak and post the conference I attended an intimate half-day workshop along with 1000 other people.

Paul Ekman originally focused on "nonverbal" behaviour, particularly concentrating on the expression and physiology of emotion by the face. He has developed a model of seven core facial emotions: Happy, Sad, Surprise, Anger, Contempt, Fear and Disgust. His research and writings on this topic are extensive and he must be regarded as the world's leading expert in this area.

His second interest is interpersonal deception. His book Telling Lies was first published in 1985 and the fourth edition in 2009. The book is the basis of the Fox TV series Lie to Me. In this book Ekman expounds his theory of micro-expressions as revealers of emotion. When people deliberately try to conceal their emotions (or unconsciously repress their emotions), a very brief --- 1/15 to 1/25 of a second --- facial expression often occurs. Using this model, Ekman has developed training tools and a workshop which is what I attended at the conference.

The workshop comprised a pre-test of trying to recognise some 20 micro-expressions, training, followed by a post-test to measure your improvement. My first problem was that I did not realise that we were trying to recognise micro-expressions in the first test so scored poorly. However post the training I simply could not pick up the micro expressions in the post-test and scored a 0. Statistically I had gotten worse! My only consolation was that around me a dozen or so people were saying they were unable to pick the micro-expressions as well.

Somewhat miffed I bought Telling Lies. The book is full a number of interesting insights and Ekman is a thorough writer. For example, he has identified 18 different types of smiles and rigorously goes through each one. He also spends considerable time on the two errors that can trap "lie-catchers". One error is to believe someone is lying when they are telling the truth. This Ekman calls the "Othello" error. The other is believing someone is telling the truth when they are lying. (Not named by Ekman but I will call this the "Iago" error.) According to Ekman, the police and other law enforcement people he has tested generally start from the position that everyone is lying and consequently commit the Othello error repeatedly.

Now I had the background, I paid up and did the METT training to see if I could improve. In the pre-test my score was 20 percent and after doing the training lifted my score to 55 percent. Ekman says you should get to 80 percent but I was so pleased to register a significant improvement that I decided to quit while I was ahead. I think there are easier ways to detect serial liars but I have covered that issue in earlier blogs.