BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When trying to lie your way through any
situation, keep a tight rein on your zygo maticus major and
your orbicularis oculi. They'll give you away faster than a
So says social psychologist Mark Frank, whose revolutionary
research on human facial expressions in situations of high stakes
deception debunks myths that have permeated police and security
training for decades. His work has come to be recognized by
security officials in the U.S. and abroad as very useful tool in
the identification and interrogation of terrorism suspects.
By applying computer technology to the emotion-driven nature of
nonverbal communication, Frank, a professor of communication in the
School of Informatics at the University at Buffalo, has devised
methods to recognize and accurately read the conscious and
unconscious behavioral cues that suggest deceit.
His research already is employed by investigative bodies around
the world and, Frank says, "It can be applied to the training of
security checkpoint personnel to help them identify and decode 'hot
spots,' the subtle conversational cues and fleeting flashes of
expression that betray buried emotions or suggest lines of
Frank notes that a large body of prior research has elaborated
and sharpened Darwin's observations about the
evolutionarily-derived nature of emotion and its expression.
In fact, Frank's mentor during his post-doctoral years at the
University of California, San Francisco, was Paul Ekman, the
world's foremost expert in reading facial expressions. Ekman
conducted extensive cross-cultural research and found that a wide
range of facial expressions related to specific emotions are
identical from culture to culture.
He found that subjects' tics, furrows, smirks, frowns, smiles
and wrinkles as they emerge in assorted combinations offer
surprisingly accurate windows to the emotions.
"Fleeting facial expressions are expressed by minute and
unconscious movements of facial muscles like the frontalis,
corregator and risorius," Frank says, "and these micro-movements,
when provoked by underlying emotions, are almost impossible for us
Ekman and his colleague Wallace Friesen came up with a numbering
system for all of these movements: for example, left and right
eyebrows up is 1; down, 2; eyebrows pulled together, 4; upper
eyelid raised, 5, and so on and related them to expressions of
various emotion that are found the world over.
Building on their research, Frank has identified and isolated
specific and sometimes involuntary movements of the 44 human facial
muscles linked to fear, distrust, distress and other emotions
related to deception.
Then, in a project for the National Science Foundation, he
developed computer programs that automated Ekman's numbering
process, making it possible to identify automatically every facial
expression, including those tied to deceit, shown by subjects in
taped interviews. Before this automation was developed, it took up
to three hours of playing, rewinding and replaying, videotapes to
analyze a single minute of blinks and twitches.
Frank's system has proven successful in identifying suspects
involved in conventional criminal and potentially criminal
behavior. It is now being tested for use in identifying potential
"I want to make it clear that one micro-expression or collection
of them is not proof of anything," Frank says. "They have meaning
only in the context of other behavioral cues, and even then are not
an indictment of an individual, just very good clues."
J.J. Newberry, formerly of the federal Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms, calls Frank and his methods "uncanny."
They are so effective that although he does not advertise his
work nor actively solicit contracts in the field, Frank been asked
to assist judges; health and police agencies, including the Los
Angeles Police Department, the U.S. Federal Judiciary, the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Department of Homeland
Security, and other legal, medical and law enforcement communities
from Singapore to Scotland Yard.
Since 9/11, a variety of federal government agencies have
provided funding for Frank, although he declines to discuss the
precise nature of his current research until it is complete and
In the course of his work with various investigative units,
Frank says that, in addition to teaching them how to recognize
behavioral cues, he has successfully advocated the use of a
"rapport building" style of communication in interviews, because it
is much more effective than the hostile/accusatory styles used in
Frank says he began to develop identification skills when he was
bouncer in a Buffalo bar. He says he trained himself to spot
behavior that suggested that patrons were underage, packing a .22
or itching for a fight. He developed a sixth sense that allowed him
to spot potential troublemakers by the way they looked when they
walked in – "like they were trying to get away with
something," he says. These were, for the individuals in question,
He honed his skills during years of research by staring at miles
of videotape (sometimes in slow motion) in which crooks, sneaks and
killers proclaimed their innocence, or hundreds of volunteer
student liars tried to earn a little cash by successfully deceiving
"This identification skill is one that some police employ
successfully. They work in a high-stakes profession that helps them
develop what they would call an acute intuitive sense," says Frank,
the son of a Buffalo police officer
"What we have done is quantify it, automate it, prove its
effectiveness and teach it very effectively."