Micro-expressions: Hidden emotional world

How do you find out what’s really going on inside somebody’s mind? Micro-expressions are rapid facial changes that act as a mirror of a person’s hidden emotional world.

What are Micro-expressions?

Micro-expressions are emotional facial expressions that are visible only a fraction of a second. In fact, they are so fleeting that for a long time psychologists were not even aware of their existence.

In the 1970s, they were accidentally discovered by the psychologists Haggard and Isaacs during the playback of psychotherapeutic video recordings in 1/6 of their original speed and slower (Haggard & Isaacs 1966). Haggard and Isaacs referred to them as micro momentary expressions. 

Micro-expressions flash across the face so quickly that they often pass by without conscious awareness. They involve involuntary movements of the facial muscles and are very difficult to control or suppress. Therefore, micro-expressions are very well suited to uncover hidden emotions on specific topics or to expose liars.

How can you recognise micro expressions?

Man can create thousands of different expressions on his face. Here, however, we focus only on the facial expressions of the seven basic emotions (which are: joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, contempt, disgust). For these seven basic emotions, universal facial expressions exist, which can be found across all cultures.

During a conversation, the micro-expressions of the basic emotions flash on the other’s face, mirroring his true underlying feelings about what is being said.

Example: Imagine, you negotiate a price with a potential customer and suddenly you see the micro-expressions of anger or disgust flash over his face. This means that he emotionally rejects your price and that you need to understand his concerns to figure out a better deal for both of you or otherwise he will not take your offer.

In forensic settings, micro-expressions are usually analysed by replaying a video of a suspect statement in slow motion. Recognising micro-expressions in real-time during normal conversation is very difficult for untrained people. However, with special training, most people can reach a reliable micro-expression recognition rate of over 70% and in few cases even over 95%.

Learn the 7 basic emotions

With some practice, you can learn to consciously perceive the micro-expressions. You can start by visually memorising the facial expressions for each of the seven basic emotions. Once your brain has memorised the dynamic facial movements of the seven basic emotions, you can more easily recognise them under fast speed conditions. You get “an eye for them”, so to speak, because you know which features of the movements to look for.

Tip: When you mimic a facial expression on your own face, you will find it much easier to understand what emotion is underlying it, because the connection between facial expressions and emotions goes both ways: When you are happy, you smile and when you smile (long enough), you will also feel happier.

Train your recognition speed

Once you master the basic emotions, you can begin to train the speed of your visual perception. From meditation research, we know that it is possible to train your brain to increase the amount of information you consciously perceive during a given time interval.

You can find this also when playing a video game for the first time: everything will be new and most likely happen too fast. But the more often you play this game, the faster you can react to obstacles and opponents. With training, the events in the game appear to happen slower, leaving you enough time to serially perceive them and respond to them in a timely manner without feeling overwhelmed.

All the best,

Scientific sources:
Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micromomentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In Methods of research in psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). Springer, Boston, MA.
Media sources:
Image: Micro-expressions. © master1305 | Envato Elements

Micro-expressions: Hidden emotional world
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Micro-expressions: Hidden emotional world
How can you find out what's really going on inside somebody's mind? Micro-expressions are rapid facial changes that act as a mirror of a person's hidden emotional world.
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