The Dangers of Reading Micro Expressions

Do we really want people to learn how to spot micro facial expressions?

Posted Jun 05, 2019

Paul Ekman Group
Dangers of reading micro expressions 
Source: Paul Ekman Group

By definition, micro expressions leak emotions that people don’t want others to know they are feeling. Sometimes, even the person showing the micro is not aware of the emotion that is leaking out.

The Micro Expression Training Tool (METT) that I developed enables those who study it to take this information from people attempting to conceal their emotions (and, in a sense, they are stealing the information).

Who has the right to do that, to tear away the curtain’s disguise? Certainly law enforcement officers (LEOs), although I have argued (a bit rhetorically) that LEOs who have been trained to spot micros should offer those they talk to the opportunity to wear a mask or facial cover.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects us from self-incrimination, but micros may provide the LEOs who take training in the Ekman METT just such incriminating information—just what the person involuntarily showing the micros doesn’t want a LEO to know. Would it be in the spirit of the Fifth Amendment for LEOs who have learned how to spot micros to at least inform those they interview that they have been specially trained to take this information—to invade privacy without consent? Should they offer criminal suspects the right to wear a mask to preserve their Fifth Amendment protection?

Many people (lawyers, business operators, salespeople) whose interests are not always the same as those whose micros they learn to spot can now, without forewarning, invade privacy, taking information without permission that the provider would not want them to have. I never thought about these issues when I developed METT, but I recognize that my training courses enable an invasion of a very private realm of people’s lives: the feelings they don’t want everyone to know they are experiencing.

And yet, such an invasion of privacy can serve the public good. It helps the health care provider—doctor, nurse, or caregiver—to tune in and be better able to help.

I once thought that I might be able to control who else would be able to use METT, but I learned from my colleagues in the Department of Defense that there is no way to do that. A tool, once created and accessible on the internet, is available to everyone who pays the nominal price. All I can hope, my Defense Department colleagues advised, is that it will be used more for what I consider to be good, to help people, than to harm or exploit people.