Emotions and Smiling
Next time your boss or your lover gives you a lopsided smile, startworrying, they're probably lying. Can we learn to tell fake emotionfrom the real thing, asks Rosie Mestel
How do I know who you are?" demands psychologist Paul Ekman, brandishing my
business card as we wait for our food in the hole-in-the-wall Chineserestaurant. "You could easily have printed this card up. For all I know you're anagent for the new agency that's taken over from the KGB." I smile back nervouslyacross the table.On the one hand, I know that he knows I am not a secret agent, though suchpersons would definitely have a vested interest in milking Ekman for information. Anexpert in lie-detection, he's been hounded for advice over the years by everyonefrom the US Secret Service to a sinister-sounding "electrical institute responsible forinterrogations" in the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, I have also learnedthat there's a right way and a wrong way to smile authentically, and that Ekman of all people will know the difference. Have I got it right? Are the muscles round myeyes puckering up in that proper, "real-smile" way? If they aren't, perhaps he thinksI'm hiding something. The need to make my smile genuine blows any chance of making it so.
In fact, Ekman isn't even bothering to decipher my smile, which fits nicely with thepoint that he's just been trying to make. People, he says, are remarkably trusting intheir social interactions. They tend to assume they're being told the truth, and thatthe expression on someone's face actually reflects the feelings underneath. Thisdespite the fact that lies and emotional fakery abound in daily conversation. What'smore, even the most practised of lie-detectors -- police, polygraph operators,psychiatrists and customs inspectors -- do barely better than random chance atdiscriminating lie from truth, or a feigned from a true emotion.Ekman thinks it's high time we turned to science. For the past few decades at theUniversity of California, San Francisco, he's been trying to tease out the subtleemotional cues that betray a liar and reveal whether happy, sad and angry facesare felt or false. "I would like to see terrorists caught and assassins stopped," hesays, as he sips away at his hot-and-sour soup. "I would like to see the falselyimprisoned ot imprisoned and the actual guilty caught." He'd also like to helppsychiatrists work out whether patients asking to go home are really feeling betteror just faking it so they can have another go at killing themselves. And besides allthat, he simply finds the subject fascinating.With the information that he's gleaned so far, Ekman reckons he could build a lie-detector with an accuracy of 80 to 90 per cent. Kick out that small group of peoplethat Ekman calls "natural liars" -- people who lie so smoothly and cleanly thatthey're almost impossible to catch -- and the success rate for the rest could climbclose to 100 per cent. It'll never reach the perfect score, though -- people are toomuch of a behavioural hotchpotch for that, and there is no one behavioural tick that