Micro Expressions



‘We move in response to our conversation partner’s face, and our brain also fires as we move those muscles and stirs the passions. Paralyzing the face is idiotic.’
John M. Gottman

By the time most of us are adult, we have learned to mask our true feelings – at least as they show up in our face – because we have to get along at work, at home, and in social settings. So we pretend to be interested, we pretend to smile, we assume a bland expression when we are actually peeved, and so on.

Of course, we are not perfect at these polite deceptions. We cannot always manage to stifle that yawn completely. But for the most part, the face we present to the world is a polite mask that hides our true feelings. And that is a good thing, usually: it helps us all get along.

But the face does sometimes give away our strongest feelings. You can learn to read what are called micro-expressions – sudden ‘leakages’ of true emotion through the mask of the face, with some training. These micro-expressions are fleeting – less than a second in duration. And they typically only show up when we are trying to hide a very strong feeling that is at odds with what we are admitting to. The expression of true feeling will suddenly and briefly break out across our face like a flash of lightning in the dark and be gone.

Establish a ‘baseline’ in the person you are looking for micro-expressions in. A baseline is their normal muscle activity when feeling little or no emotion. Ask them normal questions. Take mental note of their muscle activity when telling the truth.

Notice your own gut reactions to people. If they make you feel uncomfortable then perhaps you are unconsciously noticing the micro-expressions. When this happens, ask them questions about which they will probably lie and watch their face intently for quick ‘twitches‘.

An easy way of practicing identification of micro-expressions is to watch television or online videos of live interviews. Politicians are always interesting as they are often motivated not to tell the whole. While micro-expressions are often facial, they can also appear in the body, for example in small movements of the hand and twitches of the legs.

Micro-expressions happen quickly, but they can be detected. Once you know that they happen and are concerned that somebody may be lying or suppressing emotions, just watch carefully for them. This is not that easy as they are very brief. You may miss several, but if you can ask a pointed question and then watch carefully, the micro-expression may be seen.

Signs of emotions may be indicated below. These are usually quick and attenuated forms of the normal expression of the emotion.

Anger – lowered eyebrows, tense lips and eye lids and wrinkled forehead

Disgust – raising of upper lip, narrowed eyes, wrinkled nose and narrowed eye brows

Fear – eyes and mouth open rather widely, eyebrows raised and nostrils flared

Happiness – raising corner of lips and cheeks, narrowing eyes to produce “crow’s feet” on the outside of each eye

Sadness – narrowed eyes, eyebrows together, down-pointed mouth, and a pulling up of the chin

Surprise – dropped jaw, relaxed lips and mouth, widened eyes and slightly raised eyelids and eyebrows

Contempt – single raised corner of the mouth, slight tightening of the eyelids (sneer)

‘..so brief that they are barely perceptible to the untrained observer. Micro displays may be fragments of a squelched, neutralized or masked display.’
Ekman and Friesen


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