The Truth About Microexpressions

There has been a lot of talk lately about the idea of microexpressions. TV shows like Lie to Me and Psych include elements based on the concept of micro expressions. The problem is that a lot of the material out there is wrong. I wrote this post to help explain what microexpressions really are, and to help separate some of the fact from fiction that is floating around the web.

What are microexpressions?

Microexpression DefinitionFirst of all let’s get a proper understanding of what constitutes a micro expression.  A microexpression is a very brief (1/2 a second or less) facial expression of one of the seven basic emotions: anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, contempt, fear, and surprise.

There are a few key things to note:

  • Micro expressions are facial expressions, not movements of the arms, legs, hands, etc.
  • In this context micro refers to duration of the expression, not the degree of movement.
  • Micro expressions are limited to the basic emotions. Basic emotions are emotions that have been scientifically demonstrated to be associated with specific facial expressions. 1

The last bullet point represents a very common misconception. If someone tells you about a microexpression for something other than a basic emotion they are wrong. 2 This means that there are no microexpressions for things such as guilt, scorn, disbelief, etc.

When do microexpressions occur?

Micro expressions can occur when a person attempts to conceal an emotion. This is true if the attempted concealment is intentional (suppression) or unintentional (repression). 3 In this sense microexpressions are a form of leakage. The microexpression “leaks” (reveals) information about the emotion the person is attempting to conceal.

A classic beginner’s mistake is to assume that people are constantly displaying microexpressions. The truth is that microexpressions occur much less frequently than most people realize. Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Many people who try to conceal emotions focus on what they are saying, not the movements of their faces (or bodies.)
  • Microexpressions are more likely when our emotions are intense, such as in high stakes situations .
  • Some people just don’t display microexpressions when they are concealing an emotion. Science hasn’t figured out why this is, but research has shown that roughly 50% of people don’t. 4
Anger Disgust Blended Facial Expression

You Forgot What???

Finally don’t forget that facial expressions are an important part ofcommunication. 5 This means that the more you express with your face, the better you will communicate with other people. So it is often in our best interest to display, rather than to conceal our emotions.

For example the angry glaring look you got when you forgot flowers on Valentine’s Day — Trust me, there was no attempt to conceal. That facial expression was definitely meant as communication.

What do microexpressions mean?

When you see a microexpression all it means is that the person was likely trying to conceal an emotion, and failed to fully do so. By itself a microexpression doesn’t tell you much at all. Like any form of a nonverbal, you need to consider the context in which the microexpression occurred. The next section goes into more depth, although remember these three things:

  1. Seeing a microexpression does not tell you who or what caused the emotion
  2. Seeing a microexpression does not tell you who or what the emotion is directed at
  3. Seeing a microexpression does not tell you what a person is thinking

Does a microexpression mean someone is lying?

This question represents the all-time biggest misconception about microexpressions. Here is the answer:

Exclamation PointMicroexpressions in and of themselves do not mean that someone is lying

A key thing to keep in mind is that microexpressions are about emotions, while lying is about the truthfulness of a statement. To see an example of how these can differ, assume a person is suspected of stealing money from the company safe. Here is part of an imaginary dialog:

  • Interviewer: “Did you take the money?”
  • Suspect: <micro expression of fear and then responds> “I did not take the money from the safe!”

The classic beginner’s mistake at this point is to think “Aha! A microexpression of fear, the suspect must be afraid of getting caught. The suspect is guilty!” All the microexpression of fear tells you is that it is quite likely the suspect experienced some form of the emotion of fear. Remember: a microexpression does not tell you what someone was thinking. The suspect could easily be innocent and is afraid that no one will believe them. Maybe the suspect is having an affair with the office manager is afraid their “indiscretions” will be discovered. 🙄

How can I learn how to spot microexpressions?

Microexpression training is offered by Dr. Paul Ekman (METT) and Dr. David Matsutomoto (MiX). I’ve taken both sets of training, and have found them both to be effective.

The caveat with any microexpression training is that it is not a “checkbox”. Even one hour can make a big difference, but if you are serious about accurately reading the face, you need to practice on a regular basis.

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  1. Jason Lorah says

    I would really like to see your review over the MiX training tools by Humintell. The review is no longer available to read. I am currently doing a research paper over micro expressions and would truly love to find more stats and reviews on this particular one. Thanks