April 30, 2008 -- Michael White sat on the couch in his living room, sobbing as he grieved for the return of his pregnant wife. Liana was a gentle soul who never hurt anybody, he said through grief so convincing during a television interview that even his mother-in-law believed him.
"He was able to fool us all," Liana's mother said later after White led volunteer searchers to the ditch where he had dumped his wife's naked body and covered her with tree branches.
Eighteen months later, on Dec. 14, 2006, White was convicted of murdering his wife in their home in Edmonton, Canada, in front of their 3-year-old daughter, although he still claims he is innocent.
His performance had been very effective, convincing many that he was despondent over his wife's disappearance, despite the fact that his own face bore testimony that he was lying.
Those clues emerged in Stephen Porter's forensic psychology lab at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after intense analysis of the television interview.
"We took a 33-second video clip and we analyzed it frame by frame, 30 frames per second, about 900 or so frames," Porter said during a telephone interview. "We found that throughout the video he attempted to present himself as being extremely distressed, sad, tearful, pleading for his wife's return. But when we looked at the video frame by frame we found instances of anger and very brief instances of disgust."
Those instances, less than a second long, are called micro-expressions, long believed to be incredibly brief expressions formed by muscles in the human face that are beyond control.
Porter's research expands upon work done by many others, including the well-known American psychologist Paul Ekman, who is working with security officials at several major U.S. airports to help them recognize the uncontrollable expressions that show a person is lying.
All of them, however, are building on a suggestion by Charles Darwin 126 years ago.
"A man when moderately angry, or even when enraged, may command the movements of his body, but … those muscles of the face, which are least obedient to the will, will sometimes alone betray a slight and passing emotion," Darwin wrote in "The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals."
That idea has been refined considerably in recent years.
"The face has about 43 muscles directly linked to particular facial emotional expressions," Porter said.
Some of them are easy to control, like that false smile when you meet the boss in the hallway, but some are clearly beyond our control. It's those muscles, the ones we cannot control, that give away our dishonesty.
In the case of White, Porter said he showed sadness only on the lower part of his face.
"He didn't show the typical muscle engagement in the forehead. If you go to a funeral, you will see on most faces the eyebrows will be raised and pulled together," creating the wrinkles in the forehead that we associate with sincere sadness.
"He attempted to do that, but he wasn't able to. The corner of his lips were facing downward, and he appeared sad from the lower half of his face, but he was unable to engage the forehead," Porter said.
And even when his expression looked genuine, frequent micro-expressions in the individual frames reflected the involuntary emotions of anger and disgust.
Porter, who has been studying deceptive behavior for 15 years, has a new study in the current issue of Psychological Science that indicates it is possible for persons involved in law enforcement and airport security, and the rest of us as well, presumably, to learn how to recognize those tell-tale expressions of deceit in someone else, even if we can't control it in ourselves.
His research shows earlier studies that indicated those expressions lasted less than a fifth of a second were incorrect, because in many cases they last nearly a full second long. That should allow a trained eye enough time to detect them, he added.
Porter and graduate student Leanne ten Brinke recruited 41 undergraduate students to see whether they could mask their true emotions.
Each participant sat in front of a computer monitor as a series of 17 photos flashed briefly on the screen. The subjects were instructed to show specific expressions, like happiness, as the images appeared.
However, the images actually represented four very different emotions, disgust (a severed hand), happiness (puppies playing), sadness (baby in distress) and fear (open-mouthed rabid dog).
If a subject is supposed to show happiness when the picture of a distressed baby is shown, then clues to that deception should emerge because the emotion of happiness is false.
During the experiment, an untrained observer sat behind the computer where the image was not visible, and rated each participant's performance.
A lack of training, which was intentional, resulted in a predictable finding: You can't tell who's lying unless you've been trained.
"We found they were pretty bad at it," Porter said. In fact, they could have been just as accurate if they had flipped a coin.
But were the people able to falsify their emotions? The answer to that came when the experts viewed footage of the experiment in slow motion.
All of them flunked. Each one showed an involuntary muscular reaction at least once, Porter said.
So for the liar, "there's absolutely no hiding place," Porter added. "You can't monitor your face, like you can your body language, because you can't see it. You can see whether your arms are waving, or your foot is tapping, but you can't see your face, and you can't control it if powerful emotions are going on."
The researchers were able to document those involuntary micro-expressions less than a second long, but that's because ten Brinke spent more than a year carefully analyzing more than 100,000 video frames.
She said lying was most likely to show up when the participant was instructed to show disgust or fear, so those emotions are harder to disguise. Apparently, it's a piece of cake to look happy when we're really sad or disgusted.
"That's probably because we've had so much practice at looking happy," Porter said. "We're able to put on a smiley face," he added, because we've been conditioned to do so.
After all, we all tell those little white lies day in and day out.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.