Lies as Plain as the Nose on Your Face? Scientists teach the FBI and others to understand facial expressions to ferret out criminal and terrorist motivation. Research links tics, furrows, smirks and frowns to emotion and deceit.
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Lies as Plain as the Nose on Your Face?

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Lies as Plain as the Nose on Your Face?


Lies as Plain as the Nose on Your Face?

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Some people think they can spot a liar just by looking, and this morning we'll test that. We'll meet a man who wants to find out if facial expressions tell you the truth about who's lying. It's an issue of great interest to law enforcement.

NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has the final report in our series on spotting deception.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Mark Frank is a social psychologist doing research on human facial expressions at the University of Buffalo. He's focused on what we commonly know as nonverbal communication. Essentially, he isolates specific and sometimes involuntary movements in the face that are linked to specific emotions.

Dr. MARK FRANK (Social Psychologist, University of Buffalo): We call them little or subtle or micro. In fact, that's the term micro expressions because they're very compressed in time and they are fragmentary, but they leak. The person is struggling to conceal this from you, but if you look carefully, you can see them. And we have some data that suggests we can train people to see these - to improve their abilities by about 50 percent in as little as 30 minutes. But it's a matter of knowing where to look and understanding what it is you're seeing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Frank's work grows out of a long tradition of facial expression study. The guru of this research is a San Francisco psychologist named Paul Ekman. Ekman identified and catalogued the thousands of combinations of emotions and facial expressions to essentially unpack a face. He determined that about 3,000 of these tics and muscle movements actually revealed a specific emotion. He catalogued them into what he called the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS.

Mark Frank worked with Ekman in San Francisco and has continued to build off his research. He's trying to develop a system for using those facial emotional cues to home in on lies. He calls the tiny cues from muscles in the face hot spots, and he thinks it can help law enforcement get more out of their interrogations.

The day I visited him at University of Buffalo, he started with a video of a student his researchers had asked to make a case for a campus smoking ban.

Dr. FRANK: Watch him.

Unidentified Man: I don't agree with it. I don't think they should ban it in public places.

Dr. FRANK: What do you mean?

Unidentified Man: Smoking, like other rights in this country, you know, are very important and they should be upheld.

Dr. FRANK: Now when you watch to that particular segment of video, he actually leaks out some fear at a very critical moment.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Frank begins to explain what he saw and I admit I totally missed. Here's the hint: the eyebrows are a dead giveaway.

Dr. FRANK: Now the emotion of fear when you're not trying to control it involves the following elements of expression. Your eyebrows get pulled up but also together, not just up but up and together, and it kind of flattens the eyebrows. The upper eyelids get pulled up so the eyes get wider. And then there's a muscle - it's called a risorious muscle - it's in the lower part of the face. You can feel it move in your neck if you got it. It's like stretching your mouth back, okay? And you don't tend to see that very long, but there are - you see that in photos like a picture of a truck that's starting to overturn and somebody's on top and you see this great fear expression on their face. And so in his, you didn't see it in the lower part of the face but you saw in the upper part of the face, his eyebrows pulled up and together for a very, very brief period of time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That critical moment or very, very brief period of time is less than one-thirtieth of a second. Frank and a team of people working with him have been trying to teach judges, FBI agents and other law enforcement officials to recognize these hot spots or cues. Frank sees it as a system to reliably read emotions and to better interrogate suspects and sources. Law enforcement sees it through a different lens. They see it as a way to uncover lies.

Mr. PAUL MOSKAL (Spokesman, Federal Bureau of Investigation): We all have a gut feeling that we know when people are lying, but it's very hard for us to articulate why.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Paul Moskal is a supervisory special agent with the FBI in Buffalo. He went through Frank's microexpression training.

Mr. MOSKAL: It makes you aware of things that you weren't aware of before. And certainly through that degree, it helps us all not mentally be better investigators but probably better parents and better neighbors. We turn into better listeners. And, of course, if there's any key to being a good investigator, it's being a good listener.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Of course, there's a huge danger in parsing complex distinctions and emotions into simple facial expressions. Someone's eyebrows might go up and knit together when they talk about a particular convenient store, for example, but maybe it isn't because they robbed it. Maybe something else happened there - a first kiss, or a fight - and it was that, not lying, that caused an emotional reaction and a hot spot to light up.

John Yarbrough is a former member of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office. He works with Frank and Ekman providing real-world applications for the microexpression research. He also teaches the techniques. And Yarbrough says this low-tech way of reading people is one of the most valuable tools available in law enforcement today.

Sergeant JOHN YARBROUGH (Former Member, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office): All the different array of daily contacts that law enforcement have, Paul Ekmen's material and Mark Frank's material gives them a tool to carry with them in every single contact situation. It doesn't have to be a formal interrogation. It doesn't have to be a formal interview. It can be used on the street, you know, face-to-face contact.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Up to now, reading emotions on the face has been a human skill, but it was only a matter of time until someone tried to automate it and have computers do the emotional interpreting.

The Department of Homeland Security gave Rutgers University $3.5 million to develop a computer-based facial reader. The idea would be to video-tape nonverbal cues and then have a computer analyze them and make a judgment about a subject's truthfulness.

Researchers said that one of the challenges that remain is accurately correlating facial expressions to deception, and that's the same problem Mark Frank's low-tech system has. In the fight against terrorism, recognizing hot spots could be useful in a different way. It could help in prevention by allowing law enforcement to better understand the motivations of those who seek to attack us. Both Frank and Ekman believe these microexpressions are cross-cultural.

Again, Mark Frank.

Dr. FRANK: The actual mechanics of the emotion - the wiring in the body and the signal in the face, mm-hmm - is the same for every culture. What that means is it doesn't matter what culture you're 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.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Consider Osama bin Laden. Frank says the videos bin Laden has released are very telling. He sees bin Laden showing more and more disgust toward America.

Dr. FRANK: Disgust is actually the precursor emotion to genocide. Anger isn't. Anger is about what you did. Disgust is about who you are. And when you see that with people like bin Laden or you see this increase in disgust starting from the stuff that you've seen from the late '80s to the '90s, this starts to understand how people like that can do those things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For now, a window on emotions and an understanding of motivations may have to be enough, while scientists and law enforcement keep searching for what they hope will be the perfect lie detector.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Some earlier stories in our series about the history of the polygraph and research in the lying and the brain are available at

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