Cliff Lansley

Cliff Lansley

Think for a moment of a few interpretations of each of these following phrases. Assume that they are said to you by a close friend, or from your spouse or domestic partner:

  1. “Are you hungry?”
  2. “I hate you”
  3. “Go ahead”.

The first statement could be a genuine interest in your need for food, or it could be a hint that he/she would like to eat something. It may be a hint for you to prepare it for them. Or to take her/him out for a meal. It could be a sarcastic remark towards you as you overindulge in too much food. The second statement could be an angry attack or it could be an affectionate phrase whilst inside she/he is thinking, “I really love this man/woman”. And the third may not be permission! If you have suggested something that may be a little selfish then this could be a dare. Don’t do it!

Tone of voice, the face and body, and other factors usually guide you towards meaning … if you are being attentive.

Understanding what is going on below the waterline of the iceberg can be so valuable in forming and maintaining constructive relationships.  We often depend on each other for safety, security, work projects, services and friendship, and so the ability to read and understand others can help you to enrich and enhance such relationships.

The good news is that many of the skills involved in reading others are innate – you were born with them. The even better news is that you can learn the ones that aren’t built-in, and develop the ones that are natural.

The point is that the words themselves are only the tip of the iceberg.

In deception this is highly relevant.

It is quite easy to tell a lie using words but it is very difficult to get high stake lies past those we have trained because people leak the truth when they tell lies and we can see and hear it. The reason for this is because many behavioural signals leak without consciousness from the face, body, voice, interactional style and our psychophysiology. They even leak through the words we use.

In this blog, part of a series covering all these channels, I will focus on the face and the emotion of sadness.

Voluntary and involuntary facial expressions are under the control of different neural tracts (Rinn, 1991). Rinn substantiates this with research that highlights how involuntary and voluntary facial expressions are controlled by different parts of the brain and wired to the face by different nerves.

The face is fairly unique regarding the muscle formation. There are 43 muscles which can create around 10,000 different expressions in various combinations (Ekman 2007). Each of the functional muscle units of the face can be innervated with different timing, intensity, and laterality characteristics. These characteristics produce the ability to create thousands of different expressions.

It includes the only somatic muscles in the body attached on one side to bone and the other to skin. For example, the zygomatic major is a muscle which originates at the side of the skull and attaches to the corner of the lip causing a smile effect when activated.  Apart from the smooth muscle under the skin and the cardiac muscles most others are skeletal muscles that attach to bones at each end to enable movement.

The face is one of the few places in the body where some muscles are not attached to any bone at all such as the muscle surrounding the eyes which is named orbicularis oculi, and the muscle around the mouth, known as orbicularis oris. Understanding the upper face is valuable to a lie detector or behavioural analysis as it is mainly dedicated to expressions. The lower part is more controllable as it has to perform speech and manage food in the mouth. In the upper face, the corrugator muscle group, is useful to understand. It brings the brows down and together and is comprised of three muscles that usually act together when innervated or triggered by our motor nerves.

Although the forehead muscle (the frontalis) is a single muscle that spans the forehead, the inner and outer parts of this muscle can move independently of each other, allowing for just the inner or outer corners of the eyebrows to rise (or the entire brow if both portions are innervated). So this requires separate neural supplies to these two strands of frontalis.

Lifting the inner brows without squeezing them together or raising the outer brows is difficult to do. Only around one in ten of us can do that. When we feel sadness, though, these inner brows lift effortlessly as they are activated involuntarily via a five branch fan of cranial nerves on each side of the face that originate deep in our emotional brain.

Here is the full sadness expression (with a coding system we use) showing the inner brow raise:

Genuine sadness episodes are brief, seconds… minutes at most (unlike moods, full on crying and other states), and comes onto and off the face smoothly in sync with the sad parts of the story being told or recalled (or imagined or thought about). The brows are symmetrical and the mouth muscles are often engaged simultaneously with the brows. It is an evolved, unbidden signal that happens within half a second of feeling sadness and it is very difficult to suppress or hide. It is triggered by the loss of a valued person or object (or even loss of pride, potential loss of face or freedom) and signals to others, subconsciously to us, that we need to be left alone or maybe we need support. There are many other subtle markers in the voice that we hear in genuine sadness too – more about those in later blogs.

When sadness is posed or faked it looks more like this:

Brows are down, squeezed together and the arched lip is created by forcing the chin boss upwards, not by lip corners moving downwards, although the resulting arched mouth looks similar to genine sadness.

This is often referred to as a ‘sulk’. Used as a deliberate signal to get attention, get our own way, or to attempt to create an impression of concern or sadness to others. People rarely sulk when they are alone.

Some attempts aren’t as obvious as this, which is common with children, and some people attempt to fake concern or sadness. We see this often in fake TV appeals where appeals are made to help find the perpetrator for lost children/partners in crimes where they themselves have murdered a ‘loved one’.

These criminals can be a little more convincing to the untrained eye by raising their inner brows. But when this isn’t ‘felt’ sadness we see the telltale clues that they are faking it.

These include:

  1. Squeezing in of the brows too (signaled by deepening of vertical lines between the brows)
  2. Held too long beyond the ‘sad’ parts of the episode being recalled
  3. No smooth onset and offset
  4. One brow slightly higher (few millimetres) than the other – evidence of forced movement
  5. Lower face not engaged or integrated at sad peaks with the brows during moments when speech stops.

You can see this yourself by looking at videos numbered 3, 6 and 7 here: where three criminals are faking concern or sadness during appeals for lost loved-ones. They were later judged by the courts to be directly involved in the deaths of children, and they were imprisoned.

About the author

Cliff Lansley

Cliff Lansley

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.