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Reading Microexpressions During a 2007 interview with Katie Couric, Alex Rodriguez demonstrated what Dr. Paul Ekman calls, from left, gestural slips, unilateral contempt and microfear.
By BILL MARSH Published: February 14, 2009
Everyone from terrorism investigators to aggrieved spouses would welcome a foolproof way to spot lying—especially baseball fans. Alas, it doesn't exist, except in the tidy realm of TV detective shows, where various methods are used with great success. On the Fox network's new show "Lie to Me," a deception expert sees, not just hears, a cascade of fibbing via the liars' minute gestures and expressions. The show was inspired by the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has long studied what such expressions mean. Last week, the sports world was abuzz after Alex Rodriguez, the costly Yankee infielder, admitted to using performanceenhancing drugs. Dr. Ekman, not a sports fan, nonetheless felt compelled to watch a 2007 interview of Mr. Rodriguez by Katie Couric in which he flatly denied using drugs. He was looking for signals that revealed the player's lies. He reviewed the Couric video twice last week and found plenty of evidence. But he said his method is not conclusive. "It's always a likelihood," he said in a telephone interview. "We can never be certain on a particular case." For one thing, not all lies are detectable—some liars are good at what they do. A rival system of lie detection, brain scanning, was featured on another TV crime show, CBS's "Numb3rs," in 2007. And polygraphs, notoriously uneven in their performance, have starred in countless plots. It's a fair bet that A-Rod would be quickly unmasked on "Lie to Me." In real life, 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 is what we call a gestural slip," Dr. Ekman said. Several times during his session with Ms. Couric, Mr. Rodriguez raises his left shoulder momentarily as he speaks. "It's a slight raise of one shoulder, a fragment that slips out of a full gesture," Dr. Ekman said. In a full shrug, both shoulders rise, stay up, then drop. A half-shrug can be prompted by feelings like helplessness in the face of tough questions, or a "Who, me?" response to accusations. It doesn't square with firm denials, Dr. Ekman said. In the interview, Ms. Couric asks: "What's your reaction to this investigation?" referring to the Mitchell report on steroid use in baseball. His shoulder appears to pop up three times as Mr. Rodriguez talks of being "extremely disappointed" and adds, "It would be a huge black eye on the game of baseball." He is also asked if he ever witnessed or suspected illegal drug use among players. His answer: "I never saw" - here, his left shoulder lifts - "anything. I never had raw evidence." 'Unilateral' Contempt Mr. Rodriguez also displayed what Dr. Ekman said might be repeated microexpressions of "unilateral contempt": a tightening and raising of the corner of the lip that can indicate arrogance or a feeling a moral superiority. "He does them very frequently," Dr. Ekman said. "It doesn't fit with anything he says." It's called "unilateral" because contempt is the only emotion with a corresponding facial expression that occurs on just one side of the face. Others—anger, surprise,
fear, sadness, happiness, disgust—are "bilateral" on both sides of the face. But this particular microexpression might not mean anything if it's one that Mr. Rodriguez displays regularly, under all sorts of conditions. "It's possible that it's a tic," Dr. Ekman said. In order to find out, an investigator would spend lots of time interviewing Mr. Rodriguez about other topics that are not stressful, "to establish a baseline of what he's like when he's not on national television." Microfear Ms. Couric asked Mr. Rodriguez if he had ever been tempted to use illegal drugs. He answered with a simple "No" accompanied by what might be a microfear expression, according to Dr. Ekman - a horizontal stretching of the lips that is often an effort to conceal fearfulness. "The fear of being disbelieved is the same as fear of being caught," Dr. Ekman said. "He is afraid that we're not going to believe it." Mr. Rodriguez's lips stretch in a similar way when he talks of his disappointment with the report. On its own, the expression doesn't carry as much weight to Dr. Ekman as an indicator of submerged feelings. But in combination with repeated half-shrugs and numerous movements at the corner of the lip - sometimes within seconds of one another - his suspicions are stronger. He also noticed that when Mr. Rodriguez denied taking drugs, he was seemingly contradicted by his head, which nodded slightly in the affirmative. "It suggests a higher probability of lying," he said.