The Eyes Don’t Have It

The witness sat across from me at the Denny’s in San Pablo, her hands and fingers playing all over her mouth and face as she talked about the gun being hers and not her boyfriend’s.

I took the hand-mouth-talk action as classic deception. She had incentive to lie. Her parolee boyfriend was facing gun charges after police rousted the couple at a hotel and found the gun under his side of the bed. I worked for the boyfriend’s defense attorney. I told the attorney about the hand-mouth gestures and how I thought she was not being honest.

Turns out, I might have missed the bigger yet smaller picture in focusing so much on her hands covering her mouth while she spoke. I should have been watching for other nonverbal cues–micro expressions. Recall all the stuff we’ve been taught and told about “looking someone in the eye” to try to assess whether they are telling the truth? I learned from a recent presentation by UC Hastings professor of law Clark Freshman that you should be looking them in the shoulder, eyebrow or perhaps nostrils.

Just after my witness interview I came across an announcement from the San Francisco Bar Association that the expert in facial expressions, emotion recognition and lying was going to be giving a presentation. Freshman is the only authorized provider by Paul Ekman, adviser to the show “Lie To Me,” to teach the methods to lawyers and negotiators in North America.

Freshman opened with a clip of trial testimony from infamous OJ house guest Kato Kaelin. Freshman’s selling point is to use nonverbal cues and facial expressions to detect deception with science and not bias. “Everyone is terrible at it,” Freshman said of our ability to detect lies. People assess lies at about a 54-percent clip, slightly better than flipping a coin.

Freshman joked about what cops might think of Kaelin, “His hair is too long.” And what people in LA might think of Kaelin, “Bad dye job.” He then broke down the clip in slow motion to show Kaelin’s expressions that the naked eye would likely miss–the flared nostrils, the clenched jaw, the wrinkling of the nose, the tension in the eyes, the movement of the inner eyebrows.

Freshman’s presentation is fascinating. A lot of non-verbal cues don’t necessarily mean deception. For example, with my witness interview, the hands over the mouth while talking are more likely a sign of discomfort. Freshman’s point is that all of these signs are clues.

He said that what investigators or interviewers should do is “establish a baseline.” I sort of do this with most of my interviews in person. Get people talking about harmless or trivial matters to assess their mannerisms, the pitch of their voice, the speech cadence, etc. Save the tough or provocative questions for later in the session.

He explained that when emotion is triggered, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain clamps down “but things will leak out in other ways.” When we just focus on the eyes, we miss a lot. Another example: the fake smile or laugh. In a “felt smile,” the cheekbones will push up. In a fake smile, it’s just the lower part of the mouth that moves. Facial expressions are cross-cultural, he said.

The seven universal emotions are: happy, surprise, contempt, sadness, anger, disgust and fear.

He also showed some footage of disgraced former Senator John Edwards talking about his affair. He slowed the clip down to highlight Edwards giving a slight shoulder shrug, a telltale microexpression of deception. The voice says one thing while the body signals something else.

Part of my little cynic came alive during the talk. What if Freshman is just trying to hustle gullible attorneys for business, sort of like the dance school that tells klutzes how much they are improving and that with just a few more paid lessons they will be masters. He said that people can be trained to become better at detecting deception.

For any investigator or attorney, don’t we just assume that we are going into certain interviews knowing we are about to be sold a line of crud and deception? It’s sort of like sitting down for a game of poker. But as Freshman explained, “Poker tells can be faked. Movement of the inner eyebrows can’t be faked.”

But Freshman won me over though because he spoke more about trying to get at the root of emotions instead of just fixating on lie detection. All of these mannerisms in speech and body language are indicators but not necessarily absolutes.