Have you ever wished you were as wily as Sherlock Holmes when it comes to reading people and situations? Sure you have — especially before heading out on a date. It would be a dream to decode people with the aplomb of Holmes’ famed assistant, Dr. Watson. You’d win at poker and impress Mr. or Ms. Right with your scarily accurate insights into your honey’s feelings.
These talented characters supposedly have something the rest of us don’t: the ability to see the truth just by paying close attention to the details. One of their tricks is being able to read microexpressions — those split-second facial tics that reveal how people really feel. Disgusted? Happy? Angry? It’s all right there on someone’s face in the 1/25 to 1/15 of a second before social conditioning takes over. If you plan to start watching people’s expressions more closely, here are some things to keep in mind before you ante up your life’s savings at the poker table:
1. Context is everything. According to Dr. John Gottman, author of What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and founder of the Gottman Relationship Institute, “the important micro-expressions are contextualized by interaction, as during conversation. For example, the ‘lower-lid tightener’ — Clint Eastwood’s favorite expression — means ‘close scrutiny.’ If a friend is buying a house you think is a bad deal, that expression may convey worry for your friend, or skepticism, or even a kind of friendly contempt. But if your friend is worried that his wife may be being unfaithful, the expression is empathy.” In other words, don’t bet the farm on a facial expression. They offer clues, not the whole story.
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2. Surprise is hard to hide. Surprise is shown by the raising of eyebrows and a slight rise in one’s eyelids. It can be accompanied by a jaw drop. Disgust is a mixture of a wrinkled nose and a downturn at the corners of the mouth. If you see these two emotions in rapid suggestion, you might want to say, “Uh, I was only kidding about going to a water park and a raw oyster bar this weekend. Let’s take a bike ride and find a nice Italian place.” Watch your date’s pupils for any clue that he’s excited. If they suddenly dilate, it can be a sign of arousal.
3. Identifying the true meaning behind someone else’s facial expressions is tough. Most people can’t see micro-expressions reliably. The scientists who’ve studied them look at films of facial expressions that can be slowed down. When Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan, two leaders in the field, studied people’s ability to detect when others were lying, only about 50 out of 20,000 individuals could do it consistently. These people were nicknamed “Truth Wizards” by the research team. “The show Lie to Me often exaggerated how confident one can be of one expression,” cautions Dr. Gottman. “You can’t be! That’s why therapists use them to ask questions. Some expressions are underliners or empasizers. They can look emotional, but not be. For example, a mimicked facial expression can be empathy, but if held too long, it can become mockery.”
Dr. Tim Levine, Professor in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University, recently conducted research on whether watching the television show Lie to Me made people better able to detect deception themselves. In other words, could watching a fictional “Truth Wizard” at work rub off on you? As it turns out, not so much; the study’s participants were less accurate than the control group members in detecting deception. “There was a bias in the direction of errors,” Dr. Levine notes. “Lie to Me viewers got truths wrong more than others. That is, Lie to Me made viewers more cynical, but not better lie detectors.” So if you believe watching Psych or The Mentalist will make you a sharper facial expression observer, think again.
4. Watch a person’s mouth for anger or a signal of contempt. Anger is revealed by pressing one’s lips together, while contempt manifests itself as a pinched dimple (and sometimes, an eye roll). Be especially wary of any signs of contempt, because this emotion is poisonous to relationships.
5. Getting Botox makes you less able to read other’s emotions. Researchers David Neal from the University of Southern California and Tanya Chartrand of Duke University found that women who received Botox injections in their face were less accurate in reading emotional expressions on other people’s faces. If you want to accurately identify expressions of joy, worry, or fear in others, embrace your own aging and forgo the Botox. “A paralyzed face is less empathetic,” explains Gottman. “We move in response to our conversation partner’s face, and our brain also fires as we move those muscles and stirs the passions. Paralyzing the face is idiotic. Poor Meg Ryan! Her face was so expressive and cute in When Harry Met Sally, but now it’s a mask.”