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Bar News - December 13, 2013

Translating Nonverbals: Dr. David Matsumoto Trains NH Lawyers and Judges

Images courtesy of Humintell

For people who express skepticism about the science of microexpressions, Dr. David Matsumoto has a simple response.

“If it doesn’t work, don’t use it,” he said during a brief interview after the Nov. 15 lie-detection seminar he gave at the federal court in Concord. “If it doesn’t help you, then it doesn’t mean anything.”

An expert in nonverbal behavior and reading people’s emotions in high-pressure situations, Matsumoto is a professor and researcher at San Francisco State University. His daylong seminar focused on training the 172 lawyers and judges in attendance how to recognize involuntary flashes – as quick as one-tenth of a second – of the seven basic emotions as they zip across human faces. Studies have shown that anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise, fear, and contempt are universally expressed by the muscles in the human face, regardless of race, gender, culture or other factors. But, you have to watch closely.

“They’re so quick that unless you train your eyes and your mind to see it, you don’t,” Matsumoto said. And once you learn how to see it, “you can’t turn it off.”

A microexpression isn’t proof that someone’s lying. When compared to a personality and behavior baseline, an unexpected microexpression is merely an indicator that the person has some deeper emotion about a particular topic. If the topic is relevant to your case, recognizing that deeper emotion can be useful in depositions, juror voir dire, mediation, or settlement negotiations. If the person happens to be your wife, this skill can be quite troubling.

“I walk into a room and I know immediately if my wife is concerned about something,” Matsumoto said. “For the first five years, it used to drive her nuts, but now she’s used to it… Now, it almost makes things easier, because she doesn’t have to wait for the right time to bring something up. I see it right away.”

Not so easy for his three school-age sons, when their dad asks, “Did you do your homework?” (Even a seasoned interviewer is a little unnerved by this guy and his seemingly super-human face-reading skills.)

In addition to training professionals to detect liars though his company, Humintell, Matsumoto is a seventh-degree black belt in judo and was head coach for the US Olympic judo teams in 1996 and 2000. His involvement in the world of athletics has made possible his groundbreaking studies of congenitally blind athletes, which have shown that people who have been blind from birth have much the same facial expressions when experiencing certain emotions as sighted people do.

Matsumoto also consults with law enforcement agencies that are attempting to gain information from suspects or persons of interest. He advises using a “funneling approach” for interviews by starting with open-ended questions, then narrowing to more specific topics, and finally asking closed-ended questions. “In broad strokes, you want to start thinking about interviews that way.”

Matsumoto’s new research is focused on how reading emotions might help predict future behavior. He’s studying how emotions work in terrorist groups and whether authorities can predict, based on how a person approaches a checkpoint, whether he or she is lying or carrying contraband. He’s using test subjects wired with biometric sensors – some who are carrying contraband and some who aren’t – to try to identify differences in the way they approach the checkpoint.

“I believe there is a difference, but we haven’t found it yet,” he said.

For more information about Matsumoto and Humintell, including MiX, its online microexpression training tool, visit

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