By TOM DINKI
Published February 5, 2024
Working nights during college as a bouncer, Mark Frank discovered he could learn a lot about people by observing their facial expressions and body language.
“A bar is quite an interesting little laboratory and you end up getting really good at reading people — who’s trouble, who’s underage, or other issues that arise,” he says.
Now a UB professor of communication, Frank is an internationally recognized expert on nonverbal communication who advises the FBI and CIA on interviewing techniques. He has appeared on numerous reality television shows about the art of lying, and his postdoc work under famed psychologist Paul Ekman even helped inspire the TV crime drama “Lie to Me.”
He’s also the latest guest on Driven to Discover, the University Communications podcast that explores UB research through candid conversations with the researchers about their inspirations, their goals and the journey that led them to where they are now.
In the episode, Frank talks about the involuntary gestures and expressions that give our real feelings away, the universally accepted, yet completely bogus connection between eye contact and the truth, and why building rapport is the best way to snag a criminal.
“Everybody wants the lie detector. ‘Woop, you did this. This means you’re lying.’ And there’s nothing like that. There is no unique behavior in all people that guarantees the fact that somebody is lying,” Frank says. “But there is much better research on things to show you when you’re angry, when you’re afraid, when you’re happy, when you’re distressed, and so on and so forth. … So there are a lot of clues that suggest when people are thinking and when they’re feeling, and those are reliable markers of that.”
Frank debunks much of popular culture’s behavioral science mythos, from Samuel L. Jackson’s “the eyes can’t lie” line in the film “The Negotiator,” to former president Bill Clinton touching his nose while testifying under oath.
A study across 75 countries found that avoiding eye contact was the No. 1 behavior that people associated with liars. But Frank says that’s typically only a behavior seen in the youngest liars — kids under 10. Why? Because their parents and teachers ingrain in them the importance of looking someone in the eye.
“So what do kids learn from that? Well, if you want to be a good liar, make sure to look someone in the eye,” Frank says. “If anything, sometimes you actually get a little bit more eye contact when people are lying because they know if they look away, they’re going to get caught.”
Much of Frank’s research also centers on training law enforcement to build rapport with interview subjects. An interviewee in a relaxed state makes it easier to spot changes in their behavior, while a confrontational interview style can often lead to false confessions, Frank says.
His research has shown witnesses’ recollections are more accurate when their interviewer builds rapport with them.
“Not only is it more humane, but you get better information,” he adds. “Under torture, people tell you what they think you want to hear, but what you want is the truth in whatever way, and rapport’s a better way to do that.
Frank is also conducting research with artificial intelligence, including the National AI Institute for Exceptional Education at UB. He and his colleague, Ifeoma Nwogu, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, are using AI facial recognition systems to better understand the emotions of children with learning disabilities.
“When are they frustrated, when are they happy, when do they get this realization they got something, when are they confident — just all the various kinds of emotions. [So we are trying to] develop systems that can read that and give feedback,” he says.