In this guide, you will learn how to read microexpressions on people’s faces to boost your emotional intelligence.
To be able to have deep and meaningful conversations with other individuals, it is essential to understand their emotions. You can achieve this by actively listening to their words and reading their body language and facial expressions.
Most of the time your brain automatically reads other people’s facial expressions – at least the visible, long-lasting facial expressions, the so-called macroexpressions. However, these obvious facial expressions only illuminate a small part of the emotional world of your interlocutor.
Much more exciting are the so-called microexpressions, which arise subconsciously and cannot be deliberately evoked or suppressed. They can give you valuable information about the hidden emotional world of your conversation partner and even serve as an indicator of deception when combined with other nonverbal and verbal cues.
Since microexpressions are notoriously difficult to detect, they usually go unnoticed. With some practice, however, you can teach yourself to reliably spot them. In this guide, you’ll learn step-by-step to recognize microexpressions on people’s faces.
What are microexpressions?
Microexpressions are very fast facial expressions of emotions. They last only up to 0.5 seconds, while regular facial expressions of emotions (macroexpressions) are much longer, lasting up to 4 seconds. Microexpressions typically display the basic emotions (surprise, anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and contempt), but combinations are also possible.
During communication, microexpressions flicker across people’s faces without their awareness, reflecting their true feelings about the content of the conversation. Often neither the wearer of the microexpression, nor the conversation partner is aware of them.
Discovery of Microexpressions
Until the 1970s, psychologists and scientists had no idea that human faces show microexpressions. They were discovered by the psychologists Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs when they were playing psychotherapeutic video footage in slow motion to study nonverbal interactions between psychotherapists and their patients.
When playing the videos at 1/6 (and slower) of their original speed, they discovered very fast and fleeting expressions on people’s faces, which they called micro-momentary facial expressions (MMEs).
Examples of Microexpressions
Do you wonder what a microexpression looks like on the face? Here is an excerpt from a video by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski (Center for Bodylanguage), which shows examples of microexpressions. You’ll get to watch the full video at the end of this guide. If you look closely, you can spot three microexpressions that occur in the face of a young child.
Video 1: Excerpt of a video displaying three microexpressions, watch the full video at the end of this guide
Did you see them? These microexpressions were rather slow, usually they are even faster. You may wonder what these little facial movements mean and if you can ever learn to recognize and interpret them. Yes, you can! In this article you will learn how to reliably detect them.
Benefits of reading microexpressions
Being able to read microexpressions comes along with several advantages, it can help you to:
Here are three real-world application examples of how being able to read microexpressions can benefit you:
How to read microexpressions
Let’s get started. You may already know some facial expressions (such as those for happiness or sadness), but what, for example, does the facial expression of contempt look like?
Quiz 1: Can you tell the facial expression of contempt?
Before you can identify the basic emotions and the associated facial expressions under fast-speed conditions, you need to store strong visual representations of each of them in your memory.
Only then you’ll be able to “abstract” over them, meaning, you can find the underlying characteristics that make up the facial expression of a certain emotion and use them to reliably distinguish it from the facial expressions of other emotions.
In fact, sometimes we even confuse facial expressions for others that look similar (e.g., anger and disgust), especially if they appear very fast on the face.
Facial expressions of the basic emotions
Man can create thousands of different facial expressions. However, we focus here solely on the facial expressions of the so-called seven basic emotions (surprise, anger, happiness, fear, disgust, contempt and sadness).
The facial expressions of the basic emotions can be found across many, if not all, cultures and age groups.
Research has shown that even congenitally blind people who have never seen these emotions on other people’s faces, spontaneously show the same facial expressions.
These results suggest that the facial expressions of the basic emotions may be biologically innate and not learned from the environment through imitation.
Just as you can feel emotions with varying intensity, the facial expressions of emotions differ in their expressive power: The facial expressions can be strongly pronounced or they can be minimal and barely noticeable.
In the past, researchers have proposed many different models of emotions. While these models overlap in some points, such as for example the classification of sadness as a basic emotion, in other respects they conceptually differ.
Here you can find the classification of basic emotions and their facial expressions after the well-known emotion researcher Dr. Paul Ekman, who has also developed the famous Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which is widely used in research.
Supported by the Dalai Lama Foundation, Ekman has further created a beautiful interactive emotion atlas that visually depicts the different shades of the basic emotions and gives you lots of background information on each one of them.
In the following section, you will find pictures for each emotion that show you the corresponding facial expressions. The feelings in the images are intentionally exaggerated to make the differences in the underlying characteristics clearer.
In real life, these emotions are usually much more subtle and sometimes limited to certain parts of the face, or different emotions can occur in combinations.
1. Surprise Microexpression
Surprise is a normal reaction to an unexpected event. Our brain is constantly building a model of the world we are in and trying to predict what will happen next, based on what has happened to us before.
If something runs against the predictions of our internal model, a surprise reaction is triggered that forces our attention towards the novelty.
The facial expression of surprise can be sometimes confused with that of fear.
In surprise the eyebrows are pulled up in a relaxed manner (pictures 3, 4), while in the expression of fear you will usually find horizontal folds on the forehead.
2. Sadness Microexpression
We experience sadness as an emotional pain in response to a sense of loss. From a small disappointment of our expectations, up to severe grief over the loss of a loved one, this loss can take on many forms.
In the facial expression of sadness, both corners of the mouth are characteristically pulled downwards.
This can be very pronounced as in picture 5, or barely noticeable as in picture 6. The inner edges of the eyebrows are raised and pulled together, often with vertical folds between them (picture 5, 6).
The eyelids are relaxed and give the eyes a distinctive triangular shape (picture 6). The muscles of the chin can be pulled up (picture 6).
By expressing sadness, we signal to others that we need their help and often automatically elicit empathy in others.
3. Contempt Microexpression
Of the seven primary emotions, contempt is the only one that is asymmetrical. In contempt, one side of the mouth pulls up, which can look skeptical (picture 7) or almost like half a smile (picture 8).
This is why people often confuse contempt with a smile and falsely attribute a positive meaning to it, even though it really means the opposite.
A person showing contempt does not respect their counterpart and considers himself as superior.
As you can imagine, contempt has very negative effects on relationships.
The expression of contempt results from a negative judgement that has already taken place. Contempt is a form of psychological distancing or non-identification with the other person, which hinders interpersonal understanding and empathy.
4. Anger Microexpression
Remember the last time you’ve experienced anger. What triggered it? We usually experience anger, when we feel threatened, treated unfairly or hindered from reaching a goal.
So, you could view anger as a natural response to environmental threats. In its essential evolutionary function, it keeps us from being mistreated, injured or even killed. For the experience of anger, it does not matter, whether the thread is real or imagined. It helps us to mobilize energy resources in order to fight it.
In the expression of anger, the eyebrows are pulled down, and the eyes bulge, while the lower eyelid moves upwards (picture 9).
The lips are either tightly compressed, forming a line (picture 10) or opening to show teeth resembling furious teeth clenching in animals (picture 9). In fact, anger can be found in many non-human species as well.
However, as humans, we have a choice whether to act on our anger or not.
5. Fear Microexpression
Just like anger, fear is a primordial human emotion found in all mammals and many other species. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it is much older than, for example, contempt. Maybe you have already heard of the fight-or-flight response of the body.
It relies upon an evolutionary old neural circuit in our brain that can respond to a potential threat within milliseconds by fleeing the danger (fear) or fighting it (aggression). It involves parts of the emotional center of the brain, such as the amygdala and the hypothalamus.
Fear lets us foresee possible danger that threatens our safety, therein it doesn’t matter, whether something is posing an actual threat to our physical existence, or not.
Our species has a vivid imagination, and we might be physically just as scared before holding a presentation, as when meeting a hungry tiger in the woods. In fact, many of our fears today are socially conditioned and imaginary rather than referring to a real danger.
In the facial expression of fear, the upper eyelids are pulled upwards, often exhibiting white space above the iris of the eyes. The eyebrows are pulled up (picture 11).
Horizontal wrinkles may appear on the forehead (picture 12, 13). The mouth can be closed, opened (picture 12) or even stretched sideways (picture 13) revealing the teeth.
The facial expression of fear can sometimes confused with the facial expression of surprise, especially when occurring in rapid microexpressions. You can tell them apart by the fact that during surprise the face appears more relaxed.
6. Disgust Microexpression
We experience disgust when something is in any way „toxic“ to us, be it physical, moral, or emotional. From an evolutionary perspective, to feel disgusted and to be able to recognize disgust on other faces prevents us from being poisoned or contaminated. The common reaction, when experiencing disgust, is to withdraw oneself from its source.
In the expression of disgust, the eyebrows are lowered, and the nose is wrinkled (picture 14). The eyes are narrowed.
The upper lip is raised, creating two characteristic vertical lines from the sides of the nose to the mouth (picture 14).
These vertical lines together with the wrinkled upper part of the nose are the most typical features. As in anger, in disgust, the lips may be open or closed. If open, the lips take on a square form.
Sometimes, disgust can also involve sticking out the tongue (picture 15).
Please note that facial expressions of disgust are often mistaken for anger, especially when they appear in the face as rapid microexpressions, because both look similar in their facial features.
One way to keep them apart, especially if they happen very fast, is that a head movement often accompanies anger, while in disgust the head posture is usually maintained. And disgust wrinkles the nose more.
7. Joy Microexpression
Enjoyment or happiness includes many different positive emotions, such as sensory pleasure, compassion, relief, wonderment, arousal, ecstasy, and even something we might consider a more negative emotion, such as „Schadenfreude“ (joy over someone else’s misluck).
Happiness shows on the face by smiling. The facial expression of a smile is defined by both mouth corners pulling up simultaneously while the cheeks lift.
This often gives rise to characteristic lines around the mouth and on the sides of the face.
In a smile, the lips may be open or closed. Smiles can also be fake. Can you tell which of the 3 smiles shown here is a fake smile? Read on to check your answer.
How can you tell a real smile from a fake one? You can do this by paying close attention to the eyes: in a genuine smile, the muscles in the outer corner of the eye contract in a relaxed way and create small wrinkles around the eyes (crow’s feet).
In the pictures 16 and 17 you can see real smiles, notice how the both the cheeks and the eyes are involved.
Contrast it with the fake smile you see in picture 18—can you see the difference? The fake smile (picture 18) just involves the lips, and not the whole face.
Also, pay close attention to the timing of the facial movements. A genuine smile comes and goes at a pace that feels natural. A fake smile, on the other hand, stays on the face for much longer — it almost appears frozen.
Test your ability to read basic emotions
Now, let’s apply what you’ve just learned and test your ability to read the basic emotions. For this we will use the free microexpression training tool by Peter Kovacs and set the time to 1.5 seconds, which is the timing of a macroexpression.
Click the link to open the tool in a new tab:
And follow the instructions in this screenshot:
If you have trouble reading facial expressions, try to imitate them on your own face. Why? Because the connection between experiencing an emotion and showing the facial expression typically goes in both directions (Facial Feedback Mechanisms).
Thus, if you make a certain facial expression and hold it long enough, you can actually begin to feel the underlying emotion (unless you suffer from certain conditions, such as autism spectrum disorders).
To find out which emotion belongs to a particular expression, replicate the expression on your own face and ask yourself how that expression makes you feel. Using this strategy during the training will also make it easier for you to remember the basic emotions.
From reading emotions to reading microexpressions
Recognizing micro-expressions is nothing more than applying your existing ability to read basic emotions to very brief facial expressions. Thus, to increase the speed.
To learn to read micro-expressions, it’s best to start slowly. This means that you first try to name the emotions in the macroexpressions that last on the face for more than 1 second, which you’ve (hopefully) done in the last section.
Once you have mastered learning the facial expressions of the basic emotions, you can begin to increase the speed by gradually decreasing the display time from 1.5 second downwards (1.5, 1.0, 0.8, 0.6, 0.4, 0.2, 0.1 seconds):
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 subjectively perceive something in a slower speed.
You can find this also when playing a video game for the first time: everything is new and happens way too fast. But the more often you play this game, the better your brain becomes at predicting what will happen next and 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 microexpressions. 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.
Reading Microexpressions in the Real world
One thing is to use a training software where you know exactly that a microexpression will appear in the next moment. In real conversation, that’s a completely different matter because you just do not know if or when a microexpression might pop up.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to pause and rewind reality to see if you’ve spotted a facial microexpression right. So how do you transfer your ability to recognize microexpressions from the training software to real conversations?
It’s best to use mute video footage of speeches and interviews as an intermediate step. It’s important that the video has a high enough resolution and, of course, shows the face for a longer interval without interruption.
Try to spot the microexpressions in the videos, and you can always replay the sequence (even in slower speed) and double check if you got the emotion right the first time.
On Interpreting microexpressions
Let me also briefly mention the disadvantage of being able to read microexpressions: whether you like it or not, you will sometimes see something that you may not like or that is difficult to understand. Also, when people show emotions, those emotions are usually not about you, but about them.
Reading the microexpressions on another person’s face is only the very first step in understanding the person better. The real difficulty lies in figuring out what’s behind the observed microexpressions. In other words, why did this person feel this particular emotion at that moment? What triggered this emotion in him and why?
While microexpressions can reveal you the hidden emotions of your counterpart, they cannot tell you why these emotions occur, or what triggers them. It is up to you to find a fitting interpretation. So be careful in drawing conclusions too fast.
In order to find a good intepretation, you not only have to know how emotions arise and what they mean, but also to consider the personality of the person you are talking to and the context of the conversation, while remaining objective by excluding your own feelings from this equation.
If you see microexpressions that don’t make sense or that you don’t understand, ask more questions and don’t be afraid to include the emotions you’ve observed as a part of the question, for example:
“I might be wrong on this, but I am getting the impression that you feel uncomfortable talking about …” or “I am sensing negative vibes in our conversation, did something I say upset you?”
Thereby you also avoid misunderstandings, which can result from attributing the other person a particular belief or intention, without checking whether your assumption is correct.
In this article you have learned to spot microexpressions using the free microexpressions training tool developed by Peter Kovacs.
However, in some cases, you may wish to have a more advanced training in reading microexpressions. This can for instance be, if you want to use this skill professionally, for instance if you are a psychotherapist, coach, security personal, police man, social worker, etc. In these cases you may want to take an advanced training in reading microexpressions, which involves multiple different faces and videos.
For such an advanced training in reading microexpressions, I can highly recommend Kasia and Patryk Wezowski’s Microexpressions Online HD Video Trainings, as they include not only multiple faces, but amazing 4K close-up HD videos, so you learn not only from static blended-in pictures, but from reality-like videos.
If you want to know more about the theory behind what you’ve learned in this guide, then you could start by reading Paul Ekman’s books on emotions:
Want to test your ability to read micro-expressions on different faces? You can take a free microexpressions test developed by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski to find out how well you can identify microexpressions on people’s faces after reading this guide.
Take the free microexpressions test: http://microexpressionstrainingvideos.com/micro-expressions-test/
And finally, as promised, here you can watch the full microexpression video of Kasya and Patryk Wezowski (Center for Bodylanguage), of which you have seen an excerpt above. It shows very nicely how subtle microexpressions can be and that they often occur in combination of different emotions.
Video 2: Full video on Microexpressions by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski.
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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.
Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and noncongenitally blind individuals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(1), 1.
This guide was supported by the amazing work of many content creators, developers, photographers and artists, which shall be credited here.
Unless stated otherwise, all media in this guide are copyrighted, so if you want to use anything in your own work please refer to the original sources linked below for obtaining valid licenses.
Special thanks go to Peter Kovacs for developing the excellent free microexpression reading software tool and kindly letting me portray it in this article, and to Patryk and Kasya Wezowski for their brilliant microexpression video and microexpression HD video training software.
Video 1: Excerpt from Youtube video on Microexpressions by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski
Quiz 1 Pictures (from left to right):
Screenshots 1 and 2: Microexpressions Training Software by Peter Kovacs https://learn-to-read-emotions.com/training/
Screenshot 3: Free Microexpressions Test by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski
Video 2: Full youtube video on Microexpressions by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski
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