The Truth About Lying

Forty years ago, the research psychologist Dr Paul Ekman was addressing a group of young psychiatrists in training when he was asked a question whose answer has kept him busy pretty much ever since. Suppose, the group wanted to know, you are working in a psychiatric hospital like this one, and a patient who has previously attempted suicide comes to you. "I'm feeling much better now," the patient says. "Can I have a pass out for the weekend?"
You also know, of course, that psychiatric patients routinely make such claims, and that some, if they are granted temporary leave, will try to take their lives. But this particular patient swears they are telling the truth. They look, and sound, sincere. So here's the question: is there any way you can be sure they are telling the truth?
It set Ekman thinking. As part of his research, he had already recorded a series of 12-minute interviews with patients at the hospital. In a subsequent conversation, one of the patients told him that she had lied to him. So Ekman sat and looked at the film. Nothing. He slowed it down, and looked again. Slowed it further.
And suddenly, there, across just two frames, he saw it: a vivid, intense expression of extreme anguish. It lasted less than a 15th of a second. But once he had spotted the first expression, he soon found three more examples in that same interview. "And that," says Ekman, "was the discovery of microexpressions: very fast, intense expressions of concealed emotion."
Over the course of the next four decades, at the University of California's department of psychiatry in San Francisco, Ekman has successfully demonstrated a proposition first suggested by Charles Darwin: that the ways in which we express anger, disgust, contempt, fear, surprise, happiness and sadness are both innate and universal.

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