In this article, you can learn how to read microexpressions on people’s faces and boost your emotional intelligence.
If you want to have deep and meaningful conversations with other people, it is crucial to understand their emotions. You can achieve this by actively listening to their words, and also by paying attention to their body language and their facial expressions.
Most of the time your brain automatically reads other people’s faces — at least the visible, long-lasting facial expressions, the so-called macroexpressions. However, these big facial expressions only illuminate a small part of the emotional world of the person you are talking to.
Much more intriguing are the so-called microexpressions, which arise subconsciously and cannot be deliberately evoked or suppressed by the person displaying them. 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 very 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 other 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 basic emotions (such as surprise, anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and contempt), but combinations of these emotions 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 person showing the microexpressions nor their conversation partner is aware of them.
Discovery of Microexpressions
Until the 1970s, psychologists and scientists had no idea that human faces show something like 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.
Examples of Microexpressions
Now you might wonder what microexpressions look like. Here is an excerpt from a video by Kasya and Patryk Wezowski (from the Center for Bodylanguage), which shows a few examples of microexpressions. You can watch the full video at the end of this guide. If you look closely, you can spot three microexpressions that occur on the face of a young child.
Did you spot 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 spot them.
Benefits of reading microexpressions
Being able to read microexpressions on people’s faces comes along with many advantages, so it can help you to:
- Read another person’s underlying emotions and understand their feelings
- Empathize with the other person and take on their perspective (which is a must, if you are working with people as a coach or psychotherapist)
- Spot emotional incongruencies in what is outwardly shown versus what is felt
- Observe real-time changes of emotional states during a conversation
- Be able to recognize deception better (along with other verbal and non-verbal cues)
- Uncover hidden emotions, such as concealed emotions or even emotions that the other person is yet unaware of (this is also quite useful for coaches and psychotherapists)
- Boost your emotional intelligence and of course your communication skills
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? Please take a guess:
Keep on reading to find out if you guessed right.
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, to 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
Humans 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 the classification of sadness as a basic emotion, in other respects they differ conceptually.
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.
Noticing a change in the environment can be a matter of life or death. Surprise is therefore vital for survival. In the facial expression of surprise, the upper eyelids are pulled up, and the mouth hangs open — the so-called jaw drop (picture 3).
The facial expression of surprise can be sometimes confused with that of fear. In a 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 superior.
As you can imagine, contempt has very negative effects on relationships.
The expression of contempt results from a negative judgment 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.
By the way, the contempt face in the quiz above was the girl (letter C).
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 threat 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.
Anger is a choice, as well as a habit. It is a learned reaction to frustration, in which you behave in ways that you would rather not. In fact, severe anger is a form of insanity. You are insane whenever you are not in control of your behavior. Therefore, when you are angry and out of control, you are temporarily insane.
— Wayne Dyer
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.
Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline. — Peter A. Levine
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 12).
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
Smiles are probably the most underrated facial expressions, much more complicated than most people realize. There are dozens of smiles, each differing in appearance and in the message expressed. — Paul Ekman
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.
Here you can download a microexpressions chart as an overview:
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 the screenshot below:
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 basic emotions to 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.
Train your new superpower
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?
For this purpose, it’s best to use mute video footage of speeches and interviews as an intermediate step. The video must have a high enough resolution and, of course, show the face for a longer interval without interruption.
Try to spot microexpressions in the video, and you can always replay the sequence (even in slower speed) and double check if you got the emotion right on the first try.
Be careful in your interpretations
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 deeper 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.
Resources on microexpressions
In this article you have learned to spot microexpressions using the amazing 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 more reality-like videos.
Want to test your ability to read micro-expressions on different faces? You can take a free microexpressions testdeveloped 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 here: http://microexpressionstrainingvideos.com/micro-expressions-test/
And finally, here you can watch the full microexpression video, 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. Enjoy!