Faces, Feelings, and Lies
Sunday, April 18, 2010

What is it

According to Proverbs, lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.  But lies on human lips are as common as fleas on a dog.  What is a lie?  Are all untruths lies?  Is lying always immoral?  Do our faces inevitably betray our lies?  Join the hosts as they uncover the concept, practice, and detection of lies with pioneering psychologist Paul Ekman, author of Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage and scientific consultant to the Fox television series Lie To Me.  This program was recorded in front of a live audience at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

John and Ken start off the show, as they so often do, by defining terms. They use Hume’s theories to tease apart the concept of a feeling versus that of an emotion. John illustrates how an emotion can be viewed as a complex composite of its cause, its target, and the accompanying feeling, such that one feeling can correspond to many different emotions. 

After a glowing introduction from Ken, Paul begins by describing his key discovery of micro-expressions. These, he explains, are fleeting expressions of concealed emotion that individuals like law enforcement and medical students can be trained to detect. John wonders whether such training would qualify him to be as good as a lie detector. Paul answers that lie detectors don’t detect lies, they detect emotion. A whole sleuth of tools to analyze demeanor should be used to reveal whether someone is concealing a feeling. However, what if someone is lying about something they did, rather than about how they feel? Paul mentions that this is an important distinction to be careful about.  

Following a short break, Paul points out the universality of human emotional expression. He then mentions that most people are terrible liars and lie catchers. Ken, John, and Paul explore this fact from an evolutionary perspective; humans evolved in small communities, where it was difficult to get away with anything. Now, even in a society with such little face-to-face interaction, Paul doesn’t think lying has become any easier. Next, Ken posits that the ability to read the face might be connected to a broader ability to understand people’s beliefs, but Paul insists that thoughts, unlike feelings, are private and have no signal. He humorously adds that you can shut your mouth but not your face. 

In response to a wealth of audience questions, Paul comments on everything from Tourrete syndrome to Mona Lisa’s famous expression to the Jonathan Edwards scandal. He concludes by responding to a question about whether it is possible to infer information about someone’s character from their face. Although there might be accurate information towards this end, Paul states, it is yet to be documented.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:50): Caitlin Esch interviews researcher David Wilkins and actor Kay Kostopoulos, co-instructors of the Stanford class “Learning Facial Emotions: Art and Psychology.”
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 47:59) : Ian Shoales comments on Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a program for facial recognition that is being tested by the Department of Homeland Security. He humorously suggests that making use of Facebook’s “TMI” culture could be a viable alternative to expensive surveillance equipment.

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Paul Ekman, psychologist and expert in the study of emotions and facial expression

Bonus Content


EXTENDED INTERVIEW with Stanford instructor David Wilkins

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