Micro expressions: A compact guide

How can you find out what’s 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 didn’t even suspect that they existed.

In the 1970s, micro expressions 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. Because they involve involuntary movements of the facial muscles, they are challenging 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 recognize micro expressions?

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

During communication, the micro expressions of the primary emotions flash over a person’s face, mirroring their true underlying feelings about the contents of what is said.

Example: Imagine, you negotiate a price with a potential customer, and suddenly you see the micro expression of anger or disgust flash over his face. In this context, his micro expression could mean 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 won’t take your offer.

In forensic settings, micro expressions are usually analyzed by replaying a video of a suspect statement in slow motion. For untrained people, it is notoriously difficult to recognize micro expressions in real time during communication. However, with specialized training, most people can reach a reliable recognition rate of over 70% and in few cases even over 95%.

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Learn the seven basic emotions

With some practice, you can learn to perceive the micro expressions consciously. You can start by visually memorizing the facial expressions for each of the seven basic emotions.

Once your brain has memorized the dynamic facial movements of the seven primary emotions, you can more easily recognize them under fast speed conditions, because you know which features to seek.

Tip: By imitating a facial expression on your face, you will find it much easier to figure out the underlying emotion. This trick works, because the connection between your facial expressions and your emotions goes both ways. For example, when you are happy you smile, and when you smile (long enough), you will also feel happier.

How well can you read the basic emotions on people’s faces? Find out by taking our basic emotion reading test.

Train your micro expression reading speed

Once you have mastered learning the facial expressions of the basic emotions, you can begin to train the speed of your visual perception of face movements. 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. Thus, to perceive something in a slower speed.

You can find this also when playing a video game for the first time: everything’s new and happens too fast. But the more often you play this game, the quicker you can react to obstacles and opponents. Thus, with training, the events in the game appear to happen slower, leaving you enough time to respond to them more promptly without feeling overwhelmed.

The same holds for micro expressions. In the beginning, you will find them passing by too quickly, and therefore difficult to perceive. But the more you train yourself on noticing them, the slower they will become in your perception.

All the best,

Micro expressions: A compact guide


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Set of young woman’s portraits with different emotions © master1305 | https://elements.envato.com/

Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions 

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.

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