Can Split-Second Micro-Expressions Help Employers Hire Smarter?

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Photo: Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

Employers often learn only after hiring someone with impressive credentials that he or she is workplace poison: abrasive, self-absorbed, chasing personal glory rather than team priorities. But what if you could identify such flaws simply by observing the person over a brief period, catching the egomania or bad judgment in the contour of a smile or the cast of a sidelong glance? This would be a tremendous advantage when it came to selecting people not just for jobs but for political offices, jury duty, or countless other circumstances when we’d like to penetrate the surface of someone we’re evaluating.

A “facial coding analyst” named Dan Hill claims to be able to do precisely that. Profiled recently in the New York Times for his work with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Hill relies in part on cues on the face to divine which players are selfish, which will wilt under pressure, and which are inclined to get into trouble off the court — and, conversely, who will persevere and triumph when the pressure is mounting.

Sports owners and managers have long tried to judge the “character” of the players they spend millions to acquire, but Hill claims to bring a new scientific precision to the pursuit. In possession of a PhD in English literature from Rutgers (he has no academic training in psychology), Hill arrived at facial coding by a circuitous route. In 1998, he was ghostwriting for the president of a consulting firm when he came across an article on brain science in a now-defunct magazine called American Demographics. That sent him on a reading binge, exploring the various ways mind-sets could be measured. He was attracted to facial coding and, just a few months later, had founded a firm, Sensory Logic, which uses its insights to analyze consumer reactions to products, among other things.

Now he’s landed a very high-profile client and coverage in the nation’s most influential newspaper. “The approach may sound like palm reading to some,” the article’s author, Kevin Randall, wrote, but the hedge-fund guys who run the Bucks have bought into it, and the Times treated his ideas with great respect.

In the piece, Hill recalled spotting momentary flashes of despair — a “micro-expression” — on the face of Rafael Nadal as he played Andy Murray in the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Open. Indeed, Nadal lost. Hill allegedly has it within his abilities to distinguish smiles signifying joy from those showing contentment or “acceptance,” and to link those smiles to performance. These smiles may occur on the court, during press conferences, or anywhere else, as can performance-predicting expressions of contempt, frustration, and sadness.

According to the Times, Hill saw “emotional resiliency, stability, and … presence” on Jabari Parker’s face before the Bucks drafted him last year and advised picking him ahead of Dante Exum. Until an injury, Parker was having a solid rookie year, while Exum struggled on the Utah Jazz. (It’s worth pointing out, which the Times doesn’t, that just about every knowledgeable draft analyst — none of whom, presumably, had access to Hill’s technology — projected Parker to go ahead of Exum.)

It’s no wonder the Bucks’ team psychologist calls Hill the franchise’s “secret weapon” — if his approach works, the ramifications would be huge. And not just for the NBA, but for the workplace in general. Hill purports to offer a way to get beyond what he calls the “say/feel gap” — instances in which employees or prospective employees are, for lack of a better word, bullshitting about their enthusiasm or their abilities, hiding their flaws. He claims, in short, to have solved a work problem as old as work itself.

Anecdotes are one thing. Some academic psychologists, however, suggest Hill’s work has essentially zero basis in the scientific literature. Count Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, as a firm skeptic. He “just sighed” when he read the article, he said in an email. “It’s possible there’s evidence I don’t know of showing the validity of what’s being suggested here,” he said. “If such evidence existed, I’d eat my shorts.”

There are no indications that the coding guy is doing anything but picking out a few expressions and telling stories around them,” argued Bella DePaulo, a project scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. That is, given how many expressions people make in the course of a day, or even a game, it’s not hard to construct a plausible-seeming cause-and-effect story no matter how a player performs. Every new yarn will seem like confirmation of facial coding’s power — if you start from the premise that Hill possesses special knowledge.

Even those who view Hill’s approach as promising concede he’s making claims that go well beyond the evidence researchers have uncovered. Mark Frank, a professor of communication at the University of Buffalo, who has published work showing that computer analysis of the facial expressions of medical patients can distinguish between those feeling pain and those faking it, and articles demonstrating that facial expressions can reveal deception (a hotly contested claim), said that while Hill’s work is “a logical extension” of that line of inquiry, it flirts with “overreach.” Among the potential hurdles, he says, is a big one about causality: Does an athlete’s negative emotion cause poor play, or does poor play cause the negativity? If it’s the latter, even just part of the time, out goes the predictive ability of Hill’s approach.

Stephen Porter, of the University of British Columbia, agrees with the premise that facial expressions offer a window into emotions that people would prefer to keep secret, but he offers a caveat: “The main limitation at this point is a lack of research on what emotional profiles predict what type of long-term success in particular sports.”

The Times piece also overhypes the nature of the technology a bit. The articles says that Hill “employs the psychologist Paul Ekman’s widely accepted FACS, or Facial Action Coding System,” which sounds awfully authoritative. But FACS is a method of describing expressions by referring to the muscles that underpin them. It is “widely accepted” as a way to describe smiles more accurately than common language can — nothing more. The idea, pushed by Ekman, that the activation of particular muscles reflects an underlying similar emotional state for all people, is considerably more controversial, as is the notion that the truth leaks out of the face, revealing the subject’s true state of mind even if he or she is lying.

Ekman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco, introduced the notion of “micro-affect displays,” or micro-expressions, in a 1969 article in Psychiatry he co-wrote with Wallace V. Friesen. But the discussion largely occurred in passing, in a reference to an institutionalized woman who supposedly showed a micro-expression of despair — lasting a fraction of a second — while asking to be released from the psychiatric ward. She later admitted she was lying, and suicidal. But there was no data in that study, no control group, to test the hypothesis that micro-expressions truly functioned as “tells.” Malcolm Gladwell made much of this anecdote in a moony profile of Ekman in The New Yorker, a piece that became a key part of Blink.

But for all the publicity micro-expressions have received, they are little studied. The closest Ekman has come to linking micro-expressions to hidden states of mind may be a 1997 paper, co-written with Frank, that found that liars, highly motivated to beat the system, often displayed fleeting expressions of fear or disgust. Using video, researchers ignorant of whether test subjects were truthful coded the expressions they made as they spoke. The presence or absence of fear or disgust indicated lying or truthfulness in 80 percent of the cases, the authors claimed.

But other researchers have questioned both the thoroughness of that study and its real-world applicability. In 2013, the U.S. General Accountability Office deemed facial cues worthless as a way of detecting people with bad intentions in airports. And one study found that people flash emotional expressions that contradict what they are saying all the time, whether they are liars or truth-tellers. That our true feelings will reveal themselves through our demeanor is a deeply intuitive idea, Chicago’s Epley says, because many of us experience internal distress when we lie. But other people often remain oblivious to those feelings. (Hill told me that athletes’ outward appearances are especially likely to be revelatory, since they lead such intensely physical lives, which is yet another speculative leap.)

What’s more, even if micro-expressions can help detect discreet lies — and more study would be needed to prove even this — it’s a pretty big jump from there to the idea of using them to predict long-term performance in basketball, or anything else.

In an interview with Science of Us, Hill cautioned that micro-expressions are just one facet of his work, and he stressed that he and his colleagues don’t claim to have discovered the One True Key to Player Success. “We are not trying to be grandiose or make overly broad claims as to what’s possible,” he told me. “We are as concerned as anyone about causality and [statistical] artifacts.” He readily conceded that there’s an “element of art” in what he does. Beyond expressions, he stressed, he looks at a players’ conduct in general, at interactions with teammates and coaches, and at past disciplinary records. But clearly the unique selling point of his approach is the “scientific” coding.

Asked if he could cite peer-reviewed research that linked facial expressions to athletic performance, or performance in any arena, he offered a longish version of “no.” But he said he may eventually be able to contribute to the literature: “I’m not prepared — because it’s a competitive advantage — to reveal algorithms we are in the process of developing and honing.”

Someday, Dan will be able to get hard data linking the face to on-the-field performance, and I don’t want to miss that,” the head coach of the Washington State University football team told the Times. But given the shaky underpinnings of Hill’s sexy, potentially revolutionary idea, the rest of us should do things the other way around: Wait for the data, then consider buying into it.

Chris Shea is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

Can Micro-Expressions Lead to Better Hiring?