The 18 year old sat scrunched low in the lawn chair, clutching a phone like it was a magic talisman. The conversation was drifting, the adults touching on possible issues, investigating without interrogating. His eyes holding position down and slightly right, trying to anticipate where the conversation was leading; thoughts flickering across his face, still deciding if he would come clean.
Parents have been ‘reading’ tells like these for countless centuries; learning their child’s unique postures and expressions and working on their own outward appearance and tone to pretend they don’t already see the deception. The science behind it is fascinating.
Paul Ekman, recently featured on NPR’s Radio Lab, researches micro-expressions: “micro expressions happen when people have hidden their feelings from themselves (repression) or when they deliberately try to conceal their feelings from others. Importantly, both instances look the same; you cannot tell from the expression itself whether it is the product of suppression (deliberate concealment) or repression (unconscious concealment).” His website offers some insights into those expressions, and for a price, will teach you detect them in others, and manage your own.
At first blush, this seems like a wonderful tool… who doesn’t want to know if a potential employee is being truthful about their employment history gaps? Wouldn’t it be great to know if a teen who says she was studying at the library is lying?
This is where it gets muddled: 1) the tool is fallible, it’s statistically good, but not perfect. 2) it can’t track falsehoods if the person we’re ‘reading’ believes it to be true and – in this therapists’ opinion, perhaps most important – 3) what do we do with the knowledge of a lie?
We lie for a variety of reasons: embarrassment, fear, laziness, or because we don’t want to hurt someone else with the truth. Suddenly establishing a tool that reveals a lie upends how we communicate. Yes, it would be a great thing – for us all to be completely honest all the time – but are we ready to know every small detail about those we love? Those we employ? Those we elect into office?
Halperin wrote about this in “The Truth Machine”, offering a likely future if such a tool existed. If Ekman’s micro-expression webinars are as effective as the gadget in Halperin’s novel, maybe we’ll soon know more about …well, everyone.
Back to the teen with his folks. Suddenly, his eyes shifted when the conversation turned towards education. His body tensed, the phone’s screen blinked as he clutched it tighter. ‘Aha’ thought his parents. ‘We know where the problem is.’
And watching him squirm, moved on to another topic, waiting for him to decide when he was ready to tell his truth.