Detecting Liars at Work

7 Universal Microexpressions Everyone Should Know

Posted Jul 02, 2012

From calling in sick because you’re hung over to saying that report is done when it’s not, many of us have, at one point or another, fibbed to our boss or co-workers about something. 

The question is how can you tell when people are lying to you? We tend to trust our gut or rely on myths on how we decide if someone is lying to us at work (e.g., liars look up and to the left or rub their noses – all not true). 

The main rule in detecting deception is that there is no one sign that immediately represents deception.  Detecting deception is based on having a baseline and having a cluster of out-of-sync data points like kinesics (body language), microexpressions, and acoustics (tone of voice). 

These data points should be considered as brain hiccups that you use to say – “Something more is being said here.  Let me ask probing questions”.  The goal is to decide whether you should or should not ask more questions when you notice these signs.

In this piece I’m only going to cover microexpressions.  Mircoexpressions happen less than 1/2 second.  They tend to occur when people are consciously or unconsciously trying to conceal or repress their feelings.

Dr. Paul Ekman, a renowned clinical psychologist, has been a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions known as microexpressions.  He discovered 7 universal mircoexpressons that apply to all humans irrespective of cultural background and developed F.A.C.S. (Facial Action Coding System), methodology to train people on how to spot microexpressions.

Here are the 7 universal Mircoexpressions he discovered:


Happiness is when someone's smile show's a bit of crows feet in the eyes.  If you don't see that, you know it's a fake smile (unless the person had botox).


Sadness is when you see the eyebrows furrowing toward the center.  It's very difficult to manliplate that part of the face to force the eyebrows into this position. 


Surprise is immediately followed by another emotion such as sadness, anger, happiness.  So watch out the next time you throw a surprise birthday party in the office and notice that the person has a permanent surprise face.  A surprise face should last no longer than a few seconds.


Fear can be quickly detected if you notice that the corners of the mouth pull back.  Like saying Eeek.


Disgust is when the nose wrinkles and upper lip is relaxed.  Think of changing a diaper and it stinks.  Your immediate reponse is Ewwwwww.   


Contempt isthe movement of either left or right corner of your mouth pulled back.  


Anger is when the eyebrow are down + together and eyes are glazed.

Image Source: Fox Broadcasting

The face conveys so much information.  When people are telling a lie and there are high stakes involved the higher the probability of microexpression leakage.

What does all this mean?  When you see any of these microexpressions during your conversation, you ask yourself, why is this person reacting this way?

For instance, if you see someone demonstrating a microexpression of DISGUST, and you know there isn't anything around you that smells bad.  You would want to ask the person, "is there something that you find disgusting about X,Y,Z?" or if you see a microexpression of FEAR, you would want to ask "how does that make you feel?".

Remember, the goal is to find a baseline and then determine if these microexpressions are in alignment with the context of the environment and what is being said.  Also, not one microexpession can be taken at face value, it must be in clusters of three or more.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. 

Bernardo Tirado, PMP    

Bernardo is a Behavioral Scientist and Industrial Psychologist with certifications in Six Sigma, Project Management, and Agile/Scrum.  He covers leadership and technology for

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