10 Amazing Facts About the Human Face and How It Reveals Deception

Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

The first rule in deception detection is to watch the face.

Our faces reveal multitudes about what we are thinking, feeling, intending. A slack jaw hints that we’ve been surprised, flared nostrils suggest hostility. Drooping eyelids indicate sadness or perhaps just … exhaustion. This is to say nothing of the powerful messages communicated by the face in the embarrassed downward glance, the flirtatious “look away,” or the piercing stare.

These well-known and instantly recognizable facial expressions are but a few of the literally thousands of expressions and movements that researchers have recorded and mapped over the years while observing the face.

Because our facial expressions are reliable indicators of our true emotional state, they are a liespotter’s best friend. While not every lift of the eyebrows or tightening of the lips will yield an infallible “truth” or “lie” verdict, trained liespotters can glean much from careful study of the face. Master the basics of liespotting the Body and liespotting the Words, and you’ll soon discover a world of information about coworkers, clients, friends and strangers that previously was hiding in plain sight.

10 remarkable facts about the human face:

  1. Humans are capable of making 10,000 unique facial expressions! That’s an amazing number of combinations considering we have just 43 muscles in our face. The good news is you don’t have to recognize all 10,000 to be a good—or even a great—liespotter. The facial expressions worth knowing about can be grouped into seven basic emotions: fear, happiness, sadness, anger, contempt, disgust and surprise).
  2. People across the globe express emotions with the same basic facial expressions. Through his groundbreaking research in the 1960s in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Paul Ekman disproved earlier theories that human expressions were learned, and instead showed that our facial expressions are innate and universal.
  3. Genuine facial expressions are almost always symmetrical. From frowns to smiles, we typically reveal true feelings evenly on both sides of the face. Just like a picture hanging perfectly plumb on a wall, one’s face looks its most natural when balanced. Six of the seven core emotions are displayed genuinely with symmetrical expressions on the face. What this means is that if a colleague shows signs of surprise on just one side of her face, chances are she already knew what you just told her.
  4. We regularly flash micro-expressions that last less than 1/25th of a second. Not all of our facial expressions, even the genuine ones, are easy to read. Some signs of emotion flash by quickly, in just a split-second, before we consciously or subconsciously neutralize them. These “micro-expressions” are noticeable to the trained eye, and can reveal hidden feelings and intentions.
  5. It’s the involuntary movements around the eyes that distinguish a genuine smile from a fake one. When the rock group the Eagles sang “You can’t hide your lyin’ eyes,” they were probably talking about the insincere smile of a former lover. Genuine, sincere smiles involve two main parts: upward-turned corners of the mouth, and narrowing of the eyelids to form “crow’s feet” at the corners of the eyes. Humans can consciously and fairly easily manipulate the muscles around the mouth to form the bottom half of a smile, but it’s nearly impossible for us to fake the muscle movements of the top half, the area around the eyes. So if your lover’s smile doesn’t engage the eyes—or, if it flashes only on one side of the face—there might be trouble in paradise.
  6. Even the best liars can’t control their facial muscles well enough to hide all their emotions. Skilled liars know how to keep a poker face. Thanks to lots of practice and an ability to compartmentalize the complex emotions that surround deception, good liars can convincingly fake expressions of fear, anger, sadness—whatever the situation calls for. But even the best liars aren’t perfect: The fear of getting found out may overtake them. They might flash a look of contempt at an incompetent investigator. They might even show a hint of delight at getting away with their deception. Liespotters who are trained to elicit and notice these “leaks” can crack the case.
  7. The most common way we try to hide our emotions is with a smile. Even though faking them is difficult, we flash artificial smiles all the time as a way to mask other emotions we are feeling. We might quickly squelch an oncoming sad expression with a forced smile as a way of avoiding an embarrassing emotional display.
  8. While true happiness is revealed by the eyes, true sadness is revealed in the muscles of the chin. Only one in ten people can pull down the corners of their lips without also moving their chin muscles. This extra chin movement is the artificial part of a frown, and thus the giveway. If you see the chin muscles engage, chances are you’re seeing an insincere display of sadness.
  9. The most enduring myth about deception—that liars don’t like to make eye contact—is false. The reality is a truth-teller is just as likely to break eye contact as someone who is lying. In fact, liars tend to exhibit more eye contact, and for longer stretches, because they believe this will help to “sell” their story. Unfortunately, the myth that “liars look away” persists to this day: 72% of people in a large survey identified this action as a sign of lying. Who knows how many juries have convicted the wrong guy because a defendant who was nervous or embarrassed didn’t keep eye contact?
  10. When we are being truthful, our facial expressions are naturally expressed in synch with our physical gestures. With deception, as with comedy, timing is everything. Want to fake your rage by slamming your fists on the table? Better sync it just right with the angry expression on your face. Otherwise it will appear unnatural and deceptive. Genuine emotional displays are almost always simultaneous.