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Using The Science of Micro-Expressions to Predict Divorce: Sorry George and Amal, Your Outlook Is Not So Good


I try not to be a relationship cynic, but I see divorce in George Clooney’s future. It’s not the tabloids that I’m relying on to make this prediction. It is the science of micro-expressions - the very brief (i.e., micro) facial expressions that flash across a person’s face for mere fractions of a second.1 These unconscious expressions can be quite telling, and a careful examination of George’s nonverbal behavior during a recent interview leads me to believe that he and Amal may not be as happy as they claim. 

Much of the research on micro-expressions has been conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has spent his career studying emotions and facial expressions. He has shown that when people try to conceal how they really feel, their faces often leak true emotions. For instance, imagine being disappointed by a loved one’s thoughtful gesture (e.g., an elaborate home-made dinner of your least favorite food) or being jealous of something wonderful that happened to a close friend (e.g., getting engaged, think Bridesmaids). As you know, it would be inappropriate, not to mention rude, to express your displeasure. Rather, you may try to mask your true feelings with something more socially acceptable (e.g., a smile). In those brief and fleeting moments, a trained eye could detect the subtle and unconscious facial movements, like knitting of the eyebrows or narrowing of the lips, that express your actual discontent.2  

In the video below, Nancy O’Dell from Entertainment Tonight talks with George about his marriage to Amal.  Although he says very flattering things about his wife (i.e., “She’s an amazing human being and she’s caring and she also happens to be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met…”), both micro-expressions and what Ekman calls stress responses are present.  See if you can spot them:

You may have noticed when George jokes about how he and Amal have given the relationship “a good run” he rubs his nose (0:37). At other points he unconsciously micro-shrugs his shoulders while answering questions (e.g., 1:15 and 1:50), and then he noticeably lowers the volume of his voice when he begins discussing why he fell in love with his wife (start listening at 1:00 to hear the drop in volume by 1:06). Ekman’s work has shown that these types of behaviors are correlated with being untruthful. 

If you look closer, you’ll see George display a number of more subtle giveaways. For instance, he looks sad (e.g., pulled down corners of the lips, lowered brow, drooping upper eyelids) when asked why he fell in love with Amal (1:01 – 1:02). I also spotted the appearance of a fake smile (i.e., one that fails to engage the muscles around the eye) when asked about Amal’s fashion sense (1:49). (To see the difference, compare it with the authentic Duchene smile3  which happens at 1:23). And there is a clear, unilateral smirk of contempt when the reporter broaches the topic of children (2:02). Taken together, I’d argue that George’s nonverbals are more telling than his carefully selected dialogue.  In line with the old adage, his actions are most assuredly speaking louder than his words.

As Ekman says, micro-expressions are hard to detect, and for some even harder to believe. If you missed George’s cues, you aren’t alone. Most people are bad at detecting deception and in fact, Ekman’s work has shown that police officers, trial lawyers, judges, and forensic psychologists often score no better than chance.4 If you are interested in trying out your own lie detection skills, visit this link. It comes from the now cancelled show, Lie to Me, for which Ekman served as a producer. I will close by echoing Ekman’s warning: Be careful, as you may not really want to know what others are trying to conceal.  

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1Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Nonverbal leakage and clues to deception. Psychiatry, 32, 88–105.

2Ekman, P. (1989).  Why lies fail and what behaviors betray a lie.  In J. C. Yuille (Ed.), Credibility assessment (71-81), Dordrecht:  Kluwer Academic.

3Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., & O’Sullivan, M. (1988).  Smiles when lying.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 414-420.

4Ekman, P., O’Sullivan, M. & Frank, M. G. (1999).  A few can catch a liar.  Psychological Science, 10(3), 263-266. 

Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


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Reader Comments (1)

I would be pretty darn irritated if someone was grilling me about my private life and whether I intend to have children. I think I would barely be able to mask my contempt... for the person asking!!

July 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJen
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