There are seven universal expressions of human emotion: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, contempt, and disgust.fn1 Published, peer-reviewed research since the 1970s has indicated that there is a statistically significant correlation between a person's facial expression and the person's emotion at the time the expression is given.fn2 For example, tribesmen in New Guinea who have had limited contact with the outside world show the same emotional responses as people in more complex societies when presented with similar factual scenarios, and they are also able to identify with a high degree of accuracy expressions shown to them in sample photos from other cultures.fn3

The seven universal expressions do not include culture-specific expressions such as embarrassment; in Asian cultures, for example, embarrassment typically appears differently from the same expression in the U.S., and there is a healthy scholarly debate as to whether embarrassment is even an emotion.fn4 In a nutshell, "display rules" in each culture add nuance to the universal expressions but do not change the underlying emotion that the person is feeling.

The state of the art is presented in a textbook available for purchase, published by the recognized authorities in spontaneous facial expression.fn5 The Facial Action Coding System and other objectively tested models of emotional behavior are the scientific basis behind the popular Fox network TV show Lie to Me, which accurately depicts (with dramatic license) the work of behavioral scientists in this field.fn6 The truth is, indeed, written all over our faces (and bodies).

The purpose of this web page is to provide background materials and video clips to apply this knowledge to actual demonstrations of emotional expression.

First, we have to define what a lie is. A lie is subject to various definitions depending on the context. For the purposes of this course, I will define "lie" as "a false statement of material fact, or an omission of material fact necessary to make the statements made not misleading." This is the definition of a false statement provided in the Federal securities laws dealing with disclosure of information to stockholders in connection with the purchase of stock in public corporations.fn7

It is important to understand what is not a lie. Under the definition I have given, a lie is not a false statement about something unimportant. For example, if a stranger on the street asks you how you are doing, and you say you are fine when you are really not, that is a "little white lie" but not a lie under my definition. For one, little white lies are nearly impossible to detect in realtime, because there are no stakes involved, and therefore no pressure that would produce "leakage" in the form of microexpressions or body language.fn8 In addition, being diplomatic about a delicate subject is not a lie. If you were asked at a party how you enjoyed the food, and you actually hated the food, but you said "thank you for hosting such a nice party," the host would get the message. Signals such as these are important social cues and are unique to particular cultures. In addition, a lie is not remaining silent when asked a question, and it is not a lie to answer a different question than was asked. This is why perjury is so difficult to prosecute; in my field, law, the Supreme Court has held that perjury does not occur unless the false statement is directly responsive to the question that is asked, even if the subject intends to mislead the questioner.fn9 In such cases, the "questioner's acuity" is more important than the witness's response.

Pressure, most strongly the fear of being caught for a crime, produces observable physical reactions deemed to be indicative of deception.fn10 However, pressure may also produce reactions in the innocent subject of an interrogation, who may feel apprehensive about being accused of a crime or afraid of giving the wrong answer.fn11 In other words, the detection of concealed emotion in the form of microexpressions and/or body language tells you that someone is suppressing his or her emotions, but it does not tell you why he or she is doing so. To answer those questions, analysis of the person's motive to lie and resort to external sources of evidence are necessary.

The seven universal expressions appear in this graphic, taken from the FBI's June 2011 Law Enforcement Bulletin [PDF], which begins with an article on this field.

Introductory video - 41 minutes

I have prepared an annotated video that shows all seven universal expressions, in the form of macro and microexpressions, as well as "hot spots" that indicate leakage but not necessarily deception. I have generally ordered the videos from least difficult to most difficult. For each speaker, you will see an annotation in the lower left hand corner of the video indicating the expression or hot spot that is displayed. Most of the microexpressions last for only one frame of video, which is realistic because these expressions occur in as little as one twenty-fifth of a second (forty milliseconds)fn12 and the videos are thirty frames per second. If I had access to high definition, sixty fps video, you would be able to see these expressions in slow motion, but this is the best I could do with the available material.

For each speaker, I have done a frame-by-frame analysis and come up with four criteria deemed to be indicative of deception. First, motive to lie, which is my subjective assessment of the pressure the person is under during the video combined with my own knowledge of external facts that may need to be concealed. Second, factual plausibility, which is my subjective assessment of whether what the speaker says is possible and likely. Third, factual corroboration, which is an objective assessment of how closely the person's story matches up with external sources. Finally, the number of microexpressions detected, which is an objectively testable measurement and the most reliable indicator of deception in this video. Based on these four criteria, I have rated each subject on a scale of zero to one hundred percent truthful. Aside from microexpressions detected, which is objective, the truthfulness figure should be taken as my opinion rather than as fact.

Play high quality version (2 mbps, 575 MB, recommended)

Play medium quality version (1.2 mbps, 328 MB)

You are encouraged to view the high quality version, which will enable you to do stop-motion and frame-by-frame viewing. Although I have frozen frames of particularly notable expressions, as you will note I have not frozen every frame containing a microexpression, particularly with the first speaker, Kim Mathers. With Kim, you are seeing textbook microexpressions in realtime, which are difficult to detect without training. I recommend pausing and backing up the video to see what each expression looks like, and more importantly, how each expression rolls on and off the speaker's face. Although this will take substantially longer than 41 minutes, you will come away with a better understanding of what real microexpressions look like.

Video Commentary

Kim Mathers

What's immediately apparent from Kim is that she has a lot of suppressed anger at Eminem. This is perfect for our purposes, as her attempt to remain calm causes all kinds of havoc on her face. I recorded over forty microexpressions and numerous hot spots during this interview. And yet, my conclusion is that she is telling the truth. Note the sections marked "Spontaneous addition" or "Spontaneous correction." These are indicators of credibility.fn13 In addition, she has a very expressive face, which tells me that she isn't trying to hide how she feels even though she is suppressing her anger. The section about her second wedding to Eminem is particularly interesting because her spoken words--that she "loved every minute of it--" are totally inconsistent with her angry face. This I interpret as her being angry at herself for falling back in love with the person who originally broke her heart. An analysis of the external facts available online corroborate Kim's account, including, e.g., her suicide attempt. (Note: Wikipedia is, by its own admission, not authoritative, but it does provide a convenient starting point for research, as well as a resource of community opinion and in particular, rumors).

Rod Blagojevich

Although I'm biased against Blagojevich because I already know that he was convicted, I included this clip to demonstrate that even someone with a strong motive to lie can be truthful. His macroexpression of surprise when he says "I, frankly, am stunned" matches with the facts available to us-- in other widely available videos, Blagojevich loudly proclaims his innocence in a very sincere fashion. Analyzing those videos would require an entirely separate course, so I'll leave those for another time. As Blagojevich asserts no objectively verifiable facts during his brief statement to the media following his conviction, I have written "N/A" in the "facts plausible" and "facts corroborated" section of his credibility assessment.

Kato Kaelin

Credit to Maureen O'Sullivan, Ph.D. (d. 2010), who used this as an example in her 2007 training course, Detecting Deception. Kaelin told the truth, although he was very angry at being asked the question.

Anonymous Subject

This is one of Paul Ekman's famous videos. In the experiment, the subject had the choice of leaving or taking money in an envelope. He took the money. When asked "Did you take the money from me?" he flashes sadness, i.e., guilt. Detectives would be wise to look for this expression when questioning subjects about crimes, although people who do not feel guilt (sociopaths, etc.) may not exhibit the same facial behavior. The "facts plausible" section of the credibility assessment indicates that the facts stated by the subject are 100% plausible, because in the experimenter's frame of reference, either result is possible.

Barack Obama - Campaign 2008

What a disaster. This video is captioned on YouTube as "Obama stumped by 7 year-old girl." Why can't he just say why he started running for President? Rumor has it that then-State Senator Obama's rousing keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention led to party insiders recruiting him to run for President in 2008. Of course, he can't say in response to a 7 year-old's question that he started running for President because party insiders recruited him. However, he also can't bring himself to lie about it in this video, which is why I gave him a 100% truthfulness rating. I interpret his expressions of contempt and disgust as indications that he is disgusted with himself for accepting some type of backroom deal or at least encouragement, perhaps before he was ready to carry the torch. In any event, we see a remarkably different person in the other, later clips I included in the video from after he became President. Why? I offer a theory in my conclusions below.

Mariah Carey

A note on this video. The reason for Mariah's low truthfulness rating is that the main issue in this clip is why she won't go on tour after releasing her multi-platinum and multi-Grammy award-winning debut album. Her stated reason, that she just wants the tour to be perfect for her fans, is not plausible; recording artists' tours are to make money, not to be perfect, and the "perfect" time to do a tour is just after releasing a number one album. The interviewer knows this, which is why he presses her for a response after observing the inconsistency. Her forceful, rehearsed reply does not fit with her baseline in the rest of the video, and in my opinion removes any lingering doubt. Note that at 16:29 she rolls her eyes, as if in sarcasm or as if reading from a prepared script. Compare with Kim Mathers, who looks all over the place and in no particular direction when trying to remember facts. Mariah also exhibits the behavior of looking carefully at the interviewer to see whether he notices her false statements; this too is an indication of deception.fn14 I interpret Mariah's lack of truthfulness in this clip to her well-documented case of stage fright.fn15 If you watch other early videos of Mariah, you may notice that she appears painfully shy and afraid of what others think when she is not actually singing. My experience has been that painfully shy people will sometimes lie because they are afraid of what people will think if the truth is known.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The guy everyone loves to hate. I chose this video because it shows that he's disarmingly convincing, as well as a genius. You can draw your own conclusions, but in my opinion he tells the truth in this video with such conviction, and so spontaneously, that I have a hard time disbelieving him. He's a natural. The only hiccup in the entire video is when he utters the words "it was like there was NOTHING that could separate us." The forcefulness of the explanation as to why he and Maria Shriver are inseparable doesn't fit with his baseline in the rest of the interview, and I believe I caught two microexpressions of sadness just before he made this statement. However, I'm biased because I already know that he had fathered a child with the family's housekeeper at least three years before this clip, so I may just be seeing things. It's too bad Arnold did that, because he would have made a great Senator or, if the Constitution had been amended for him, President. If you read about Arnold in the tell-all book written by his first American girlfriend, Barbara Baker, or watch the HBO video Pumping Iron, you may notice that Arnold is a natural communicator in every setting he is placed in, and has the uncanny ability of being able to pick out which people are best able to help him achieve his goals. Clearly, Arnold was a mega-success in every area he put his effort into, except with his family. I've corroborated most of the facts asserted by Arnold in the interview, except his statements about a Hydrogen Highway. Although the Hydrogen Highway is not yet operational (certainly not by 2010 as he states), Arnold's subjective beliefs at the time of this video (unknown date) appear sincere and were plausible, thereby increasing his truthfulness rating. As demonstrated by his self-confidence in the rest of the video, he clearly believed that he as Governor could do anything, including develop the Hydrogen Highway. While some (many?) perceive Arnold as being arrogant, note that he exhibits not a single expression of contempt throughout the entire video. In my opinion, that is polish combined with learned (or at least acted) humility. Remember that Arnold is a famous actor, and he has a lot of experience acting. Nevertheless he reveals many personal details of his early life, including the potentially explosive fact that he had pictures of half-naked men posted on his walls when he was growing up, to the point of causing concern to his parents. I conclude he is 90% truthful in this video.

Barack Obama - 60 Minutes Segment One

I have marked all of the microexpressions I was able to find in the video, a total of seven. This video is especially remarkable for the very distinct expressions of sadness that take over the President's face at 35:32 when he is asked whether he had to suppress the urge to tell someone about the Bin Laden operation. The person he had to suppress the urge to tell is, without a doubt, his wife; in Segment Three, which I didn't include for reasons of time, he states that he didn't tell his own family about the operation because it was that important to maintain operational security. I have a theory why the President exhibits disgust at 31:39 when talking about his Special Forces, of which he is obviously proud. The President's father died in a car accident in 1981, which was "twenty to thirty years ago," after a downward spiral into drinking and unemployment. Thinking about the time period could have triggered the memory, and the President may well be disgusted with his father's final years. Alternatively, it's been rumored in other media that the President was "dissed" when he met the Special Forces who conducted the operation, in that they would not tell him who took the fatal shots at Bin Laden. As Commander-in-Chief, the President is entitled to the answer to that question and to make appropriate decorations, but he clearly (and probably correctly) chose not to press further. In Segment Three, in reference to decorations, the President states "they'll pretty much get whatever they want-- but these guys are so low-key, so focused on just doing their job, that I think they're probably embarrassed with all of the attention." The President doesn't display any expressions during this statement, which leads me to conclude that his father's passing was what triggered the microexpression of disgust noted earlier.

Barack Obama - 60 Minutes Segment Two

The best example of a microexpression is at 39:16, when the President shows a textbook example of the happiness microexpression when asked what his reaction was to hearing that Bin Laden was dead. The best example of a statement lacking in credibility is the portion from 37:24 to 37:39 marked "Classified Information" wherein the President carefully treads around the issue of what he was able to see in Bin Laden's compound. Note the mid-sentence equivocations, which are inconsistent with his speech in the rest of the interview. "We knew as events unfolded what was happening in-- in and around the compound, but we could not see-- we could not get information clearly about what was happening inside the compound." The apparent reason that the President qualified his statement was that the U.S. military has a classified stealth dronefn16 that flew many sorties over the compound during the planning stages of the operation, and flew over the compound during the operation. The drone has the capability of showing live, full motion video based on advanced thermal imaging and other apparatus. As a result, the President's other statement "we had a sense of when gunfire and explosions took place" is literally true, if misleading. Note that the footnoted article came out two weeks after the raid, while the President's 60 Minutes interview took place just days after the operation. I subtract truthfulness points anyway for the President's omission of what he was able to see in the compound during the raid, because the President has the power to declassify information and the stealth drone had already been officially acknowledged by the Air Force at that time.fn17 In mitigation, the question and answer were spontaneous and the President may have been unaware that the drone was already public knowledge, so he may have been unsure how much detail he should share on international television.

Barack Obama - Heckled by Rep. Joe Wilson

The strongest reactions in this video are from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden, who show strong surprise (both Pelosi and Biden) and a flash of anger (Biden). Oddly, the President exhibits no microexpressions when he is called a liar on national television. However, his head twists slightly when he hears the words, "you lie!" and moments later, his left arm twitches significantly. I explain this as leakage from the President's (successful) effort to project confidence and leadership in the face of a breach of decorum by a Congressman. Amazingly, the President continues with the rest of his speech as if nothing happened. In my opinion, that is the mark of someone with strong emotional health and self-confidence.

John Edwards

Where do I begin? During his lengthy explanation of how he allegedly didn't father a child with his videographer, Rielle Hunter, Edwards's face is frozen in a false look of sincerity. I see this same expression all the time on attorneys' faces, as well as on newscasters' faces when they need to appear somber. Setting aside my instant bias based on what is a familiar expression to me, the two objectively testable giveaways here are a profoundly strong and yet fleeting microexpression of disgust followed immediately by a microexpression of contempt. I interpret this as a feeling of disgust at the prospect that he actually fathered a child with someone in a lower social class, and contempt--indeed, laughing contempt--at the idea that he, the big and powerful self-made multi-millionaire John Edwards, would have to stoop so low as to take a paternity test for anyone. If you read the unauthorized tell-all biography that chronicled Edwards's campaign and its aftermath,fn18 you'll find many examples of Edwards's narcissism and downright dishonest and manipulative behavior.


I have only one significant conclusion, and I believe that my Centrist/Independent political views allow me to give an opinion that is exacting, fair, and unbiased. In the video presentation I've given you, the one person who consistently exhibits the most natural, appropriate, realistic, plausible, humble, and emotionally healthy responses to the situations he is placed in is the President. Setting aside his disastrous "town hall" campaign appearance in 2008, President Obama demonstrates a combination of sincerity, polish, and diplomacy that is almost superhuman. I have a theory as to why that is the case.

Comparing the 2008 campaign appearance with the 60 Minutes interview presents two completely different sides of the same person. In the campaign appearance, we see an unedited, tentative, unpolished monologue that conceals then-Senator Obama's motivations for seeking higher office, and yet displays integrity by not making any false statements. In the 60 Minutes interview, we see a slightly edited, highly polished presentation that is only mildly dishonest, and even then only about immaterial subjects such as how the President felt on hearing the news of Bin Laden's death, and about areas in which information is classified and therefore not needful of disclosure.

From all of the evidence available to me, and from all of my experience in the last seven years I have been an attorney, and from all of the training and reading I have done in this field, and from my careful observation of the different videos of the President, I have concluded that in 2009, the President's advisors persuaded him to engage behavior modification consultants to increase his already high levels of polish, credibility, and speaking ability to unprecedented levels. I contend that the President's use of scientific techniques to design his 2008 campaign left him open to exploring other areas of science that might be beneficial to retaining office once attaining it. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with doing so; ask yourself what the natural result is of Presidents or candidates engaging behavioral scientists to improve themselves as people and as communicators. Whether the motivation is to increase their credibility, likeability, ability to help the U.S. compete with other nations on the global stage, or some other concealed motivation, my own answer to the question posed is this: we get better Presidents, from which we all benefit.

Further Reading

For those interested in learning far more in this area than I've presented in this brief course, I most recommend Unmasking the Face, which provides a technical but understandable introduction to the field of emotional expression through facial action. The book is shorter than but is equivalent to a textbook, including exercises and practice materials, as well as helpful comments on each of the scholarly articles cited.

I also recommend purchasing the METT2 online training for $69 from the Ekman Group. Full disclosure: as a condition of allowing me to present the METT2 tool in class, they asked me to ask you to buy the training, which is appropriate considering that you're seeing a large portion of the tool for free. By purchasing the training and conducting the full program, you too can achieve an accuracy above the target of 80% and receive a certificate of achievement. My prediction in this course is that students will achieve approximately 60% accuracy, which is better than chance by a statistically significant margin, but lower than "the possible." My own high score is 93%, but I keep trying to get to 95% for a certificate of expertise in this area. If you want to reach your full potential, the full training suite is the way to go.