Subtle Expressions Key to Detecting Deception


New research in a paper called Detecting Deception from Emotional and Unemotional Cues by Gemma Warren, Elizabeth Schertler and Peter Bull suggests that subtle expressions, not microexpressions, could be a more accurate tool in detecting deception.

Many people know that microexpressions are hidden signs of emotions that are uncontrollable and last a fraction of a second. These microexpressions were once thought to be an effective method to detecting deception, yet this new study suggests that subtle expressions, not microexpressions, could be the key to catching liars.

In their study, Warren, et. al recorded videos of individuals being either truthful or deceptive. This video footage was designed to generate an emotional or unemotional response. Individuals were then asked to evaluate the level of honesty in those videos and complete the Microexpression Training Tool (developed by myself and Dr. Paul Ekman) and the Subtle Expression Training Tool (SETT). They concluded that the overall performance for emotional lie detection was “significantly positively correlated with reported use of facial expressions and with performance on the Subtle Expression Training Tool (SETT), but not on the Microexpression Training Tool (METT).” This study implies that subtle expression training is positively correlated with emotional lie detection.

What are subtle expressions and how are they different than microexpressions?

Subtle expressions are just as their name suggests: subtle. They occur when a person’s emotional response to a situation, to another person or to the environment around them is of low intensity. They also occur when a person is just starting to feel an emotion.

Learning to see subtle expressions is different than learning to see microexpressions. Being able to see microexpressions of emotion requires that you learn to spot a full expression of emotion visible on the face for a short time: micros “flash” for ½ second or less.  Contrary to this, when you study subtle expressions, you learn how to identify the emotion a person is feeling from slight, subtle variations of the expression being shown.

Want to learn how to detect subtle expressions? Try our SubX Professional Training or our SubX Lite– Our unique training tool is one-of-a-kind and found nowhere else. Complete with 70 practice images, SubX was originally funded by and developed for governmental agencies in the United States. Learning subtle expressions really is the “next step” in learning how to detect deception. If you would like additional training after you’ve taken SubX or SubX Lite, try our SubX Additional Training. Complete with 70 practice images, you can set the speed to adjust your needs and improve your ability to detect subtle expressions.

How is our training different than SETT?

SubX features a baseline test, 13 instructional videos, a practice test with 70 color images and a post test. SETT features no baseline or post test and contains only 37 practice images in black and white.

SubX features instructional videos complete with full video and audio capabilities whereas SETT training contains only written verbiage.

SubX also contains better images-representing multiple ethnicities, genders and age groups whereas SETT features images from only one individual.

SubX contains an instructional video on how to identify expressions when portions of the face are hidden or covered. SETT does not contain this feature.

SubX training was developed for and funded by top governmental agencies in the United States.

Want to try a FREE demo of our SubX Training? Click Here!

20 responses to “Subtle Expressions Key to Detecting Deception”

  1. Polprav says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  2. Yes. Feel free to quote a post with a link to our site.

  3. […] skills. And I check out the Eyes for Lies blog every day, too, which led me to this article: Subtle Expressions Key to Detecting Deception: New research in a paper called Detecting Deception from Emotional and Unemotional Cues by Gemma […]

  4. Rick says:

    I’m curious Doc. Some everyday ordinary people, are often accurate at “knowing” when someone is lying; and often, they attribute this to “intuition”. For myself, it also works frequently, via phone and email (note: email only seems to work when I have seen “numerous” other emails from the subject). Could this “intuition” actually be some innate ability to more-often-than-not correctly read Subtle- or Micro-expressions; voice tone and sentence structure?

    Thanks for your time

  5. Hi Rick.

    There has been little research done on this topic, but what research has been done shows that the majority of people who are good at detecting deception are not born with this innate ability. Many of these people have honed their deception detecting skills throughout their life through experience (e.g. through a career in law enforcement).

    Also, it is important to note that “intuition” can be interpreted differently from person to person. Perhaps someone that is more knowledgeable about micro or subtle expressions would assume it was their “intuition” telling them that a person was lying, when unconsciously they were using their knowledge to come up with an inference.

    However, there may be natural lie detectors out there, that have had no formal training whatsoever. Like I mentioned earlier, there hasn’t been that much research on this topic.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Rick says:

    Many thanks for your response; what you say with respect to life experience makes a whole lot of sense.


  7. Jim McGowan says:

    I too have been successful in recognizing when people are or are not being forthright when speaking. I don’t think it is an innate ability, nor do I think that it is a learned talent. What I do knpw is that at some point in my life I determined – right or wrong – that first impressions are indeed often the best measure of people. At one time I used to try and purposely discard my first impressions of people, thinking that I should learn more about them before “branding” them in one way or another. Over time, however, it became increasingly obvious to me that on the occasions when I would record my first impressions mentally and then look back on them after getting to know certain people better, those first impressions were amazingly accurate. In fact much more accurate than the occasions when I withheld judgment and gave people a wide berth, usually called, “…the benefit of the doubt…”.

    I believe that if you are faithfully observant when meeting people for the first time, and watch their expressions, listen carefully to what they say and how they say it, that first “feeling” that you get about them is usually dead-on accurate more often than not.


  8. Chloe Marie says:


    I am a clinical psychology graduate student looking to incorporate microexpression into my dissertation. Where can I find the psychometric properties of this coding system. Thank you in advance!

    Chloe Marie

  9. Hi Chloe,

    Dr. Matsumoto has advised that you look at the following article, which can be found on his website.

    Hope this helps!

  10. user19938 says:

    Quick question. If I take the Mix test and speed it up to 1/5 of a second.. isnt that really the same thing as the subx. The mix moves so quickly that you really can’t see if its subtle or if the expression is pronounced. Also, just a thought.. I can ace these tests very easily, but what I have a hard time is in real life when im engaged in a conversation. You have various expressions moving consecutively and its hard to pick up on these because its back to back movements of the face. I would love to see if you guys can develop something where you have an individual engaged in a conversation flashing any and all expressions, and then asking the user to see if they were able to identify correctly which expressions were flashed. It’s rare that I go into a conversation seeing a neutral face, i see 5 different moves all at one time and then i get puzzled.

  11. Jordan J. says:

    I agree with user19938,
    it would be of great help to have conversations, or news clip analyzed and then have us quizzed upon such subjects. the static images of the training is good to start off, but I seem to miss the link in between the newly acquired knowledge and a real situation.
    In any case, User19938, you learn alot in the webinars, I strongly suggest you participate in one. All I wish is that we could log on to a video-library that has been previously analyzed to improve our skills.
    thank you for the great work, and clear lay out.

  12. BILL says:

    i really am interested in microexpressions , boddy language, spot liars, anyway , what area we study this ? is in neuroscience or psycology ?
    i another have a question … subtle expressions are brief like micro expressions ? or subtle expressions can stay more time on face ?
    thanks you

  13. Hi Bill, The area is behavioral psychology. Microexpressions are brief facial expressions of emotions that last on the face for less than half a second. Subtle expressions are also just as fast, but only occur in one part of the face. Hope this helps!

  14. catey says:

    i got 9 out of 10 on a micro expression test and 17 out of 20 on a real or fake smile test i was wondering does that mean i am a natural or a freak????????

  15. dsa says:

    seems to me its not so hard as it seems during these tests, i spose is largely different than real life

  16. David says:

    Good day.

    I have been wanting to get into the field of non-verbal communication for quite a while, but only over the past few months (since i started watching Lie To Me;) have I actually begun to do some serious research on the topic, particularly regarding actually getting some training. Regarding this, I have a few questions for you..

    1. I happen to live in South Africa. Do you have any partners, or institutions/affiliates you could recommend I approach regarding training in this field (ideally without it being a full time endeavour, as I have a full time job)?

    2. Are you at all affiliated with IMEXA? They have a branch here, but how legitimate are they actually?

    Thank you for your time…

  17. […] Subtle Expressions the Key to Detecting Deception An Expert in Deception […]

  18. […] Subtle Expressions the Key to Detecting Deception […]

  19. […] Éric Goulard – Les scientifiques ont aujourd’hui la certitude que nous réagissons tous inconsciemment aux émotions. Les micro-expressions du visage sont clairement des signes visibles d’une émotion ressentie. Ces réflexes sont ultrarapides. Leur durée peut aller de 1/2 seconde à 1/20 de seconde. Elles peuvent aussi être subtiles. Dans ce cas, elles apparaissent seulement sur une partie du visage ou alors de manière très faible. Une étude récente établit une relation entre la capacité à reconnaître les micro-expressions s…. […]

  20. Valsyslav says:

    I have some confusion in understanding and use of terms such as subtle and microexpression, especially in their overlap in duration. Microexpressions last less then 1/2, and macroexpressions last between 1/2 and 4 or 5 seconds, it’s clear. But what if subtle expression overlaps in duration with microexpression? So if expression lasts 0,4 second, shown on low intencity or fragmentary, how we shoud call it? Based on article Microexpression and Deception (Frank & Svetieva, 2014) it should be called microexpression, but they define microexpression as full or fragmentary expression. You don’t.
    What’s the right name for such expression in your opinion?
    Thank you!

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