Listening to a Face

Joanne McNeil is a writer interested in the ways that technology is shaping art, politics, and society.
More on Joanne McNeil

The truth is written all over our faces” was a tagline for Lie to Me, a procedural drama on network television several years ago.

On the show, Tim Roth played a scientist leading a team of independent contractors assisting criminal investigations. His character, Dr. Cal Lightman, had a particular gift: he could spot “micro expressions,” split-second tiny facial movements that suggest an individual is engaging in deception. The opening titles were a montage of examples of this, such as measured furrowing eyebrows and subtle lip twitches.

Lightman would often encounter characters who were skeptical of his talents. In the pilot, a law enforcement superior called him a “carnival act.” Unfazed, Roth as Lightman countered, “A moment ago, I saw you smile at your colleague. Flash her a glance and then shift your gaze. She responded by raising her chin, boss, revealing deep embarrassment. I’ll take [a] wild guess: you two had a fling. And she doesn’t want a repeat performance, you know what with your wife and all. But you won’t move on.” When the stunned man went quiet and rubbed his nose, Lightman added, “Oh, no, no. Keep your fingers off your nose. Men have erectile tissue there. It itches when they’re hiding something.”

This kind of super-sleuth dramatic confrontation might sound familiar to anyone who has ever read a Marvel comic or watched the Scooby Doo gang unmask a villain, but Lightman is based on a real person. Paul Ekman’s research on micro expressions not only inspired the show, but he was hired as a consultant. The American psychologist has advised or inspired film and books like Inside Out and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and institutions like police departments and the TSA.

In a 2014 profile of Ekman for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Shea pointed to a number of academic critics of his research on the physical characteristics of emotion. The SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques) program – Ekman’s project with the TSA – cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but, as Shea wrote, the Government Accountability Office “argued that neither scholarship in general nor specific analyses of SPOT offered any proof that malign intent could be divined by looking at body language or facial cues.” A former officer with the program told The Intercept last year, SPOT “was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple ‘behaviors’ that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value.”

Ekman, with Wallace V. Friesen, developed a taxonomy known as Facial Action Coding System (FACS.) It is something like a hex color code for faces. As an index of facial expressions, it measures the intensity of movements made by a host of facial muscles and attributes from “inner brow raiser” to “nasolabial deepener.” He believes that faces ultimately conjure up variations of six basic emotions: anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear. In the New York Times, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University countered that Ekman’s “assumption is wrong…human facial expressions, viewed on their own, are not universally understood.” Despite controversy and skepticism, Ekman’s research is the conceptual underpinning of dozens of “affective computing” emotion surveillance start-ups that attempt to divine a user’s interiority. These companies usually scan faces to determine someone’s emotions and sometimes respond with artificial intelligence or collect other data to measure affect. Ekman advices one emotion surveillance company, Emotient, which was acquired by Apple this year. Several others like Affectiva and Kairos, uncritically cite his work.

Many people would like to be like Tim Roth in Lie to Me and wittily put naysayers in their place by disarming them of the ultimate human trait, the power to conceal our thoughts. Kids used to order X-Ray Spex in gag ads in the back of comics and magazines for just that reason. There is great desire for a device or technique to exist that denudes others of their ambiguity. Emotion surveillance, is swiftly becoming the new polygraph, a ludicrously expensive coin toss, that departments are stubbornly disinclined to abandon because of the money and training invested into these programs. What sounds like evidence in the field is a lot of hocus pocus and high tech mood rings. Emotion surveillance is exploiting people’s discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. To put these companies in the context of Ekman’s research, their existence expresses one of his six basic emotions – fear. Fear of the unknown.

Joanne McNeil is a writer interested in the ways that technology is shaping art, politics, and society.
More on Joanne McNeil

Suggested Citation:

McNeil, J. (2016) 'Listening to a Face', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at:
< Prev Next >