What are microexpressions?

By: Tom Scheve  | 
You can tell a lot about people (and eggs) by the expression on their faces.
Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Digital Vision/Getty Images

After taking just one look at someone, why do we sometimes immediately know we don't like them? We usually chalk it up to instinct, intuition or a gut feeling, but researchers have found there's something more going on that just barely meets the eye — microexpressions. The human face is a medium that sends us a message. When we "read" a face, there's quite a lot of data to sift through. With this in mind, let's take a look at how and why facial expressions can convey positive and negative emotions.

While verbal communication is important, it isn't everything. Nonverbal cues make the human face an integral part of understanding others. If we think of the human face as a medium, one part of the medium is its basic structure and muscle tone. Is it long and angular or round and chubby? Often, we'll see a stranger's face and flip through a mental Rolodex of sorts, matching the shape of the new face with ones we already know. We also perceive changes that have taken place, such as scarring and wrinkles. Taking into account other factors like makeup, tattoos and piercings, we make personal judgments based on what the person has added by choice.


­Providing more immediate information are the changes in a person's facial expression — smiles, frowns and scowls. These changes provide us with the most obvious information about someone's mood or immediate intentions. Expressions represent the person's intended message, the one they want to convey. A person trying to gain your trust smiles. Someone trying to scare you scowls. Of course, sometimes the person makes involuntary facial expressions that reveal the person's true emotions. These involuntary expressions are microexpressions.

­When we communicate, we try to collect as much verbal and nonverbal information as possible. We also try to control the outgoing expressive information we display to others in order to:

  • Maximize our understanding of the people we interact with
  • Gain perspective on the situation
  • Protect ourselves against harm, deception, embarrassment or loss of social standing
  • Guide, assure or manipulate the perceptions of another


The Seven Universal Facial Expressions

Just look at that angry forehead.
Jetta Productions/Iconica/Getty Images

You know that when you speak to your parent or child, a frown indicates sadness or dissatisfaction. But is it because a frown is a learned behavior? Paul Ekman, a researcher, wondered this same thing. He decided to travel the world to study people from different cultures to determine if our expressions are learned behaviors.

After studying people from foreign cities, faraway lands and isolated jungles, Ekman learned that all humans share seven universal emotions and corresponding basic facial expressions. Here are those seven facial expressions:


  • Happiness: An expression of happiness involves raising lip corners, raising cheeks, and narrowing eyelids, producing crow's feet (wrinkles in the corners of the eyes).
  • Sadness: This expression features narrowed eyes, inner corners of the eyebrows brought together, a down-turned mouth, and a pulling up or bunching of the chin.
  • Fear: In fear, the mouth and eyes are open, eyebrows are raised and nostrils are sometimes flared.
  • Anger: An angry facial expression involves lowered eyebrows, a wrinkled forehead, tensed eyelids and tensed lips.
  • Disgust: A look of disgust includes nose scrunching, raising of the upper lip, downcast eyebrows and narrowed eyes.
  • Surprise: Surprise appears with a dropped jaw, relaxed lips and mouth, widened eyes and slightly raised eyelids and eyebrows.
  • Contempt: Contempt is notable for its raising of one side of the mouth into a sneer or smirk.

With fellow researcher W.V. Friesen, Ekman went even further and mapped out (through observation and biofeedback) which facial muscles were responsible for which expressions. He codified them into a system called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).

The anatomy of a face

Measuring expressions, as it turns out, isn't so easy. For one thing, the FACS doesn't identify the emotion, only the muscles involved in making an expression. The measurements used are Action Units (AUs), with each Action Unit representing a specific motion. For instance, raising the inner corners of the eyebrows is AU 1 and bunching the eyebrows together is AU 4.

It's noted whether the expression is voluntary or involuntary, spontaneous or intentional. ­The intensity of an expression is also important. Smile strength, for example, can be classified in different ways, depending on the degree the corners of the mouth are turned up. Measuring duration takes into account the time it takes your mouth to reach the apex of its smile, how long the apex is held, and the time it takes to return to a nonsmiling state.

Are other expressions simultaneously occurring? Are they connected or separate from the smile? Is the smile symmetrical? If not, what are the measurements for each side of the face? And to think of all those bumper stickers demanding that you "Smile!" without once taking into consideration how complicated an order that is to fulfill.


Reading Microexpressions: Facial Expression Analysis

Think of microexpressions as this man's face. The expressions on the paper plates are what he chooses to show to you, but you might see microexpressions of his true feelings underneath.
Sean Locke/Photodisc/Getty Images

Since many facial expressions and the emotions they represent are common to the entire human species, our brains are wired to search for and interpret these facial cues. Likewise, when we feel something on an emotional level, our faces have a peculiar habit of exhibiting an expression that matches the way we feel, sometimes without our knowledge or without the desire to put our emotions on display across our faces.

This pesky trait can be quite revealing, even though an unintended expression may last only a fraction of a second. A superfast expression that suddenly appears in the middle of another — sometimes opposite — expression is a microexpression. While we provide others with visual information about the way we feel through our expressions, other information "leaks" out of our faces between or during these intentional expressions.


It can be second nature to decode facial expressions, but it can be trickier to decode — or even notice — microexpressions. That's because microexpressions can be as brief as 1/25 of a second. They occur so fast that they're often not perceived by the conscious mind of either the expresser or the person observing the expression. As few as 10 percent of people are even aware of seeing microexpressions when tested.

Microexpressions, also known as micro expressions, can be much more accurate signs of a person's true feelings and intentions than the expression he or she is consciously producing. The smiling salesman may flash a millisecond-long sneer of contempt or the fierce-looking man approaching you in the parking lot may have a sudden look of fear wash across his face.

Even when we're consciously unaware of detecting a microexpression, it can still influence our brain activity and alter our perception of the expressions we do consciously see on another's face. So, if you see a "happy" expression plain as day on someone's face and there are no microexpressions preceding it, you'll identify it as happy.

But if the "happy" expression is preceded by a sneering microexpression that you aren't even conscious of detecting, you'll be more likely to describe that same "happy" face as "cunning" or "untrustworthy." This may go a long way in explaining that uneasy feeling that leads you to walk away from someone thinking, "I don't know what it is, but there's just something about that person …"

Ekman shares his knowledge with law enforcement and intelligence agencies to help them better detect suspicious behaviors or deceptions, such as a millisecond-long look of fear expressed by someone approaching an airport security check. Ekman believes the ability to detect and interpret microexpressions can be improved by studying changes in human faces using photographs or video, improving lie detection in the future.

Spotting terrorists in line at the airport is just one extreme use of the ability to detect microexpressions. It can also benefit us in our social life. When we misperceive microexpressions, we can make false assumptions about the people with whom we communicate. This creates distance in our relationships, instead of increased awareness.

Microexpressions can be truth tellers, so we can improve our chances of seeing a big sign from unintentional fast facial movements by tuning into the microexpressions of other people. Detecting concealed information isn't just about figuring out when bad actors lie — micro-expression recognition is also about having the emotional intelligence to understand genuine human emotions.


Lots More Information

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­More Great Links

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