The Voice Was Lying. The Face May Have Told the Truth.
During a 2007 interview with Katie Couric, Alex Rodriguez demonstrated what Dr. Paul Ekman calls, fromleft, gestural slips, unilateral contempt and microfear.
By BILL MARSHPublished: February 14, 2009
Everyone from terrorism investigators toaggrieved spouses would welcome afoolproof way to spot lying—especiallybaseball fans.Alas, it doesn't exist, except in the tidyrealm of TV detective shows, wherevarious methods are used with greatsuccess. On the Fox network's new show"Lie to Me," a deception expert sees, not just hears, a cascade of fibbing via theliars' minute gestures and expressions.The show was inspired by the work of Dr.Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has longstudied what such expressions mean.Last week, the sports world was abuzzafter Alex Rodriguez, the costly Yankeeinfielder, admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Dr. Ekman, not a sportsfan, nonetheless felt compelled to watch a2007 interview of Mr. Rodriguez by KatieCouric in which he flatly denied usingdrugs. He was looking for signals thatrevealed the player's lies.He reviewed the Couric video twice lastweek and found plenty of evidence. But hesaid his method is not conclusive."It's always a likelihood," he said in atelephone interview. "We can never becertain on a particular case." For onething, not all lies are detectable—someliars are good at what they do.A rival system of lie detection, brainscanning, was featured on another TVcrime show, CBS's "Numb3rs," in 2007.And polygraphs, notoriously uneven intheir performance, have starred in count-less plots.It's a fair bet that A-Rod would bequickly unmasked on "Lie to Me." In reallife, it's not so easy. Here is what Dr.Ekman found in the 2007 interview.
The Gestural Slip
"The most reliable thing that he did iswhat we call a gestural slip," Dr. Ekmansaid. Several times during his session withMs. Couric, Mr. Rodriguez raises his leftshoulder momentarily as he speaks."It's a slight raise of one shoulder, afragment that slips out of a full gesture,"Dr. Ekman said. In a full shrug, bothshoulders rise, stay up, then drop.A half-shrug can be prompted byfeelings like helplessness in the face oftough questions, or a "Who, me?"response to accusations. It doesn't squarewith firm denials, Dr. Ekman said.In the interview, Ms. Couric asks:"What's your reaction to this investi-gation?" referring to the Mitchell report onsteroid use in baseball.His shoulder appears to pop up threetimes as Mr. Rodriguez talks of being"extremely disappointed" and adds, "Itwould be a huge black eye on the game ofbaseball."He is also asked if he ever witnessed orsuspected illegal drug use among players.His answer: "I never saw" - here, his leftshoulder lifts - "anything. I never had rawevidence."
Mr. Rodriguez also displayed what Dr.Ekman said might be repeated micro-expressions of "unilateral contempt": atightening and raising of the corner of thelip that can indicate arrogance or a feelinga moral superiority. "He does them veryfrequently," Dr. Ekman said. "It doesn't fitwith anything he says."It's called "unilateral" because contemptis the only emotion with a correspondingfacial expression that occurs on just oneside of the face. Others—anger, surprise,fear, sadness, happiness, disgust—are"bilateral" on both sides of the face.But this particular microexpressionmight not mean anything if it's one that Mr.Rodriguez displays regularly, under allsorts of conditions."It's possible that it's a tic," Dr. Ekmansaid. In order to find out, an investigatorwould spend lots of time interviewing Mr.Rodriguez about other topics that are notstressful, "to establish a baseline of whathe's like when he's not on nationaltelevision."
Ms. Couric asked Mr. Rodriguez if hehad ever been tempted to use illegaldrugs. He answered with a simple "No"accompanied by what might be amicrofear expression, according to Dr.Ekman - a horizontal stretching of the lipsthat is often an effort to concealfearfulness."The fear of being disbelieved is thesame as fear of being caught," Dr. Ekmansaid. "He is afraid that we're not going tobelieve it."Mr. Rodriguez's lips stretch in a similarway when he talks of his disappointmentwith the report.On its own, the expression doesn't carryas much weight to Dr. Ekman as anindicator of submerged feelings. But incombination with repeated half-shrugs andnumerous movements at the corner of thelip - sometimes within seconds of oneanother - his suspicions are stronger. Healso noticed that when Mr. Rodriguezdenied taking drugs, he was seeminglycontradicted by his head, which noddedslightly in the affirmative."It suggests a higher probability oflying," he said.