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A Law Enforcement Tool
To a certain extent, Frank is codifying human intuition while he's also debunking myths about how to read people.
"The literature shows that liars don't make less eye contact than truth tellers. But you ask anyone on the planet what liars do, the first thing they agree on is liars don't look you in the eye," Frank said. "Even just getting over that mythology is a step in the right direction."
Of course, there is a huge danger in parsing complex distinctions and emotions into simple facial expressions. Eyebrows might rise and knit together when a subject talks about a particular convenience store, for example, but it may not be because the subject robbed the store. Perhaps the store was the site of another event — a first kiss, or a fight, for example — that triggered an emotional reaction. And that reaction — not lying — could light up a hot spot.
John Yarbrough is a former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He has worked with Frank and Ekman to provide real-world applications for their microexpression research. He also teaches the techniques. Yarbrough says Frank and Ekman's low-tech approach to reading people is one of the most valuable tools available in law enforcement today. It's a tool officers can carry with them during encounters, whether it's a formal interrogation or face-to-face contact on the street, Yarbrough says.
Researchers are now looking at whether computers can do the emotional interpreting that humans do. The Department of Homeland Security gave Rutgers University $3.5 million to develop a computer-based facial reader. Ideally, the computer would be able to analyze nonverbal cues on video and make a judgment about a subject's truthfulness. Researchers say one of the challenges that remains is accurately correlating facial expressions to deception — the same problem Frank grapples with using his low-tech system.
While Frank's system is still unproven at detecting deception, law enforcement could use hot spots in an effort to uncover a suspect's motivation — particularly when it comes to terrorism. That's because microexpressions are cross-cultural, Frank and Ekman say.
"The actual mechanics of the emotion, the wiring in the body, the signal in the face, is the same for every culture," Frank said. "What that means is that it doesn't matter what culture you are from — anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happy, sad and surprise are shown by all people in every culture on the planet, and they show them the same way."
Consider Osama bin Laden. Frank has analyzed videos released by bin Laden since the late '80s; he says bin Laden's facial expressions show increasing disgust toward America.
"Disgust is actually the precursor emotion to genocide," he said. "Anger isn't. Anger is about what you did; disgust is about who you are. When you see that with people like bin Laden … you start to understand how people can do those things."
For now, a window on emotions and an understanding of motivations may have to suffice while scientists and law enforcement continue their search for the perfect lie detector.
Is that a scowl or just disgust? Facial expressions can be harder to interpret than most of us realize, but help is on the way. Read on
By Richard Coniff
Smithsonian.com, January 01, 2004
Since facial expressions are part of our biological heritage, shouldn't reading them be second nature? In fact, most of us are dismal at reading faces, particularly those of strangers. Since September 11, it has dawned on much of the world that looking at other people's faces, in airports, in crowded subway cars and elsewhere, is something we need to do. And psychologist Paul Ekman, 69, is the man to teach us how.
Until Ekman came along, no one had systematically analyzed or measured the emotions that pass across our faces. But in the 1970s, Ekman and a colleague at the University of California at San Francisco developed the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, which has since become the essential tool in the science of recognizing and interpreting facial expressions. The FACS atlas, now on CD ROM, describes all 43 movements, or "action units," facial muscles can perform, plus all the combinations of action units which can create more than 10,000 possible facial expressions in all.
Ekman's work has created a weirdly diverse following. The Dalai Lama has helped finance Ekman's classes on developing "emotional balance." Federal counterintelligence agencies routinely hire him to teach the nuances of facial expression for use in interrogating suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. Ekman's FACS atlas has also enabled Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear, and a generation of cartoon characters since then, to arch their eyebrows and otherwise make faces like real people.
Perhaps most importantly, because FACS breaks facial expressions down into all of their component parts, researchers are finding that computers can also learn to read faces. So the thinking goes, if we could just link airport security cameras to computers programmed with FACS, maybe we could spot would be hijackers by a telltale glower or a microexpression of contempt.
Probably what's most useful about Ekman's work is that he reminds us that reading faces is an ability latent within us all—never lost, merely forgotten. No government security program, nor any computer network ever likely to be conceived, could possibly match the effectiveness of millions of ordinary people simply making conversation and looking one another in the face.
This interactive graphic is based on "The Micro Expression Training Tool" developed by Paul Ekman, PH.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco.
Computer program recognizes facial expressions