A growing body of research shows that people lie constantly; that deception is pervasive in everyday life. One study found that people tell two to three lies every 10 minutes, and even conservative estimates indicate that we lie at least once a day.

– Ulrich Boser,  We’re All Lying Liars: Why People Tell Lies, and Why White Lies Can Be OK

That can’t be right, can it?  Every 10 minutes?  Every day? 

When I first came upon that research finding, I found myself trying to reconstruct all the recent conversations I’d had, wondering where the untruths were…

Theirs, and mine.

I also wondered if they knew …

Recently I’ve become aware that, at home, in my very home, I’ve been found out.

My son knows when I’m lying.

(I think my wife does too, but let’s keep this sufficiently narrow, for my own psychological safety.)


Despite my best efforts to hide how I’m feeling, my son knows when I’m angry, and when I’m sad; when I’m disgusted, and when I’m distressed.

He knows when I’m thinking something but not saying it; and when I’m saying something but not meaning it.

It’s become a bit disconcerting, to say the least!

For the last couple of years he’s been a student of microexpressions — those fleeting, involuntary facial expressions that betray our conscious attempts to conceal the underlying emotions that we really feel.

He’s good at recognizing and interpreting them.  I asked him to give me an example for this blog post, and here’s what he emailed me —

Every time you get a check at a restaurant you flash fear and anger. Eyes widen slightly, eyebrows move together, indicative of fear. The anger comes from the contraction of the zygomatic major muscle in your cheeks. It stretches from about right in front of your ear to the corners of your mouth (There’s a graph in my Darwin book you can see). The zygomatic major is the sole muscle involved in all 18 genuinely felt smiles, but in this case, it stretches your mouth horizontally and you purse your lips. This is the part that suggests anger.

Now, I don’t think you’re genuinely scared/angry. I think it’s likely to be a conditioned response from when money was far tighter than it is now, and you’d take Mom because you knew she likes to eat out…

How about them apples!

To give you a quick feel for how difficult these microexpressions are to spot, go ahead and give it a go here!  Or here if you just want to see the experiment…

Perhaps you’re familiar with the recent (and very awesome!) prime time Emmy-nominated TV show Lie To Me Load up Netflix and start with the season one pilot!

I first ran across the fascinating notion that microexpressions give us away when reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell several years ago.  Gladwell related American psychologist John Gottman’s research video-recording couples in conversation.  By studying participants’ facial expressions, Gottman was able to predict which relationships would last and which would not by noting the microexpressions they exhibited during a single conversation.  When there was evidence of the four major emotional reactions of defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt (especially contempt!) that didn’t bode well for the longevity of the relationship…

Then Lie To Me debuted on prime time, being based on similar research, and my son’s interest blossomed and the gig was up for me!

*     *     *     *     *

Interesting, perhaps; but so what?

Quite honestly (!) I’m not sure.

Could this be an example of the expression “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?

Maybe one so what is that while we may think we are able to deceive others in ways large and small every day (or twice every ten minutes) we likely really aren’t.  Maybe my unconscious can read your microexpressions, and yours mine, so that while we on a conscious level don’t realize the deception or underlying feelings, we have a vague sense of them…

So maybe when we wonder why our relationships aren’t richer, deeper, more satisfying, we might begin to understand where that comes from …

Or perhaps just knowing a little about this research can help you be straight with me … or me be more forthcoming with you … or us both stopping short of trying to knowingly mislead …

Can “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” be dangerous in a good way?

Perhaps it can keep us honest.

Like my son does for me?

Well maybe not quite like that