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Guide to Reading Microexpressions

Learning how to decode the face is like having a super power.

The face is the window into the soul–if you know how to read it. The good news is we can already tell a lot about someone by their face.

The Face of a Leader:

Look at these faces of CEOs, can you tell which ones are the most profitable?

CEO faces


In this study by Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady, researchers asked participants to rate these CEO’s based on their picture. Their ratings accurately correlated to the amount of profits the CEOs made. Answers: J. David J. O’reilly (Chevron), G. James Mulva (Conoco Phillips), C. H. Lee Scott Jr. (Walmart).

How to Read A Face:

Knowing how to read and interpret microexpressions is an essential part of understanding nonverbal behavior and reading people. Here is my brief guide to understanding the microexpression.

faces small

microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown on the face of humans according to the emotions that are being experienced. Unlike regular pro-longed facial expressions, it is difficult to fake a microexpression.

There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. They often occur as fast as 1/15 to 1/25 of a second.

The face is the best indicator of a person’s emotions. Yet, it is often overlooked. Dr. Paul Ekman, whose research is the premise of the show Lie to Me, has done groundbreaking research on decoding the human face. He has shown that facial expressions are universal. In other words, people in the US make the same face for sadness as indigenous people in Papa New Guinea who have never seen TV or movies to model. He also found that congenitally blind individuals—those blind since birth, also make the same expressions even though they have never seen other people’s faces.

Ekman has designated seven facial expressions that are the most widely used and easy to interpret. Learning to read them is incredibly helpful for understanding the people in our lives. If you want to practice reading people’s faces, it is important to know the following basic expressions. I would recommend trying the following faces in the mirror so you can see what they look like on yourself. You will also find that if you make the facial expression, you also begin to feel the emotion yourself! Emotions not only cause facial expressions, facial expressions also cause emotions.

1) Surprise Microexpression:

Surprise microexpression guide

-The brows are raised and curved

-Skin below the brow is stretched

-Horizontal wrinkles across the forehead

-Eyelids are opened, white of the eye showing above and below

-Jaw drops open and teeth are parted but there is not tension or stretching of the mouth




Fear microexpression guide

 2) Fear Microexpression:

-Brows are raised and drawn together, usually in a flat line

-Wrinkles in the forehead are in the center between the brows, not across

-Upper eyelid is raised, but the lower lid is tense and drawn up

-Upper eye has white showing, but not the lower white

-Mouth is open and lips are slightly tensed or stretched and drawn back

 Disgust microexpression guide3) Disgust Microexpression:

-Upper lid is raised

-Lower lip is raised

-Nose is wrinkled

-Cheeks are raised

-Lines show below the lower lid

This is the expression you make when you smell something bad.



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Anger microexpression guide4) Anger Microexpression:

-The brows are lowered and drawn together

-Vertical lines appear between the brows

-Lower lid is tensed

-Eyes hard stare or bulging

-Lips can be pressed firmly together with corners down or square shape as if shouting

-Nostrils may be dilated

-The lower jaw juts out

(All three facial areas must be engaged to not have any ambiguity)

 5) Happiness Microexpression:

Happiness microexpression guide
Fake Happy

-Corners of the lips are drawn back and up

-Mouth may or may not be parted, teeth exposed

-A wrinkle runs from outer nose to outer lip

-Cheeks are raised

-Lower lid may show wrinkles or be tense

-Crows feet near the outside of the eyes

*The expressions on the left are real happiness, the ones on the right are fake happiness where the side eye muscles are not engaged. See the difference?


6) Sadness Microexpression:

Sadness Microexpression Guide

-Inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn in and then up

-Skin below eyebrow triangulated, with inner corner up

-Corner of the lips are drawn down

-Jaw comes up

-Lower lip pouts out

*This is the hardest microexpression to fake!


Contempt Microexpression Guide

7) Contempt / Hate Microexpression:

-One side of the mouth raises

Practice these emotions on yourself, and see if you can detect them in the people in your life.

Sometimes knowing what emotion your seeing is also just as important as an emotion you are NOT seeing. For example, if you are talking to someone about a vacation or activity you think they like, are they showing you genuine happiness? If you accuse them of cheating/breaking an office rule do they show surprise or fear? If they are not surprised, they probably knew they did something wrong and are afraid of getting caught. You can also test yourself, using this test.

The underlying importance of reading faces is that it has to be done in person, without looking down at a Blackberry or iPhone, so we have to pay attention to others. This alone helps tremendously in connecting with others and gleaning their true meaning.

If you really want to read people, check out…

The Power of Body Language:

These fabulous photos are courtesy of the very talented Honeysuckle Photography


P. Ekman, “Facial Expressions of Emotion: an Old Controversy and New Findings”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, B335:63–69, 1992

Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in

Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink, Chapter 1, Section 3, The Importance of Contempt

Camilleri, J., Truth Wizard knows when you’ve been lying”, Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 2009

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.

  • Jeremy Kesby

    As usual, Vanessa, loads of value. I thought you might be amused by this recent image of Conrad Murray I posted on twitter (bottom image). He flashed this microexpression (quite a long one) of disgust during an Australian 60 Minutes interview. Here’s the Youtube clip:

    There are SO MANY deceptive verbal and non-verbal indicators in this interview, it’s hard to know where to start!

    • Vanessa Van Edwards

      This is super cool! Thanks for posting this. Love the perfect disgust microexpression.

    • Brad

      Technically that’s a subtle expression not a micro. It lasts too long.

    • daddy7860

      I saw contempt, right before he said he wanted to help michael

    • grant thompson

      I have just started dabbing my feet in the water, so I might be wrong… but did anyone notice this? judging by what he was saying during this… it almost seems like… ok so please if im wrong let me know… so I think he is showing anger… eyebrows are in and his lips are pressed.. the only thing I think is weird is no forehead activity… so I might be wrong… any thoughts?

  • Martin

    Great post, very insightful. Seems like you’re all had some fun doing these pictures. Are the photos meant to be watched in a bigger size? Actually you could click them but the link leads to your homepage.

  • maggie

    have any of your watched the show “lie to me”. It is all about this!

    • JessAmberr1995

      LOVED lie to me!

    • Missed It

      It mentions “Lie to me” at the beginning of the article. It says Dr. Enkman’s research was the premise behind the show…

    • daniela

      it’s why i’m here :)

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  • Mark Midwinter

    Thanks Vanessa – great post..

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  • Alexa Katarina

    Very educated. Thanks for the information.

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  • Nivi

    Watching Elliot Rodger recording his manifesto was really scary because I couldn´t detect any microexpression on his face. Couldn´t be a lack of microexpression in someones face be an alert signal that something is wrong?

    • Vanessa Van Edwards

      Yes definitely that is very odd. Could be plastic surgery or botox….

    • Anonym

      Probably a psycho.
      Psychos don’t usually show what others would consider the “correct” expression on certain situations

    • Brad

      Not necessarily. Micro expressions only happen about 20% of the time. But if a person should be feeling a feeling and they are not showing it then yes that is a hotspot. Like Susan Smith who showed no sadness when speaking about her missing children. Or if someone is acting angry but you see no signs of rage in the face or gestures. So sometimes a lack of an emotion is a giveaway but you must consider the context. The thing people mistake about body language reading is that you can tell someone’s lying by a micro or subtle expression. Most cases you can’t be sure until you ask questions. All a micro tells you is what emotion is felt. It doesn’t tell you why. Never assume you know the why.

      • Tim Tonole

        It was a result of the psych drugs he was on. It’s fairly common in medicated individuals

      • Linn

        20% of the time? Where did you get that? Lots was missing from Susan Smith’s face and tone of voice, but there were lots showing as well. Lack of concern, smirk (getting away with a lie), and I can’t remember what else, but the micro expressions were there. Crazy people may be the only ones not being able to feel something that resembles caring, love, etc., and therefore show it (?). But if a person feels anything, it will show even if we miss it. Even spychopaths show micro expressions. Remember, these are not emotions we consciously control. They are involuntary and betray us constantly. We have to train ourselves to control them and then hide them. This is not easy to do and that’s why people like Vanessa offer to help.

        • Brad

          I am well aware of how micro expressions work. I got the 20% figure from Dr. Ekman’s research papers. He said in his studies of test subjects that they only occurred 20% of the time so that makes them even more difficult to spot in addition to their brevity when they do occur. I wasn’t saying that Susan Smith never showed any expressions. I was simply using her as an example of a missing felt emotion where one should have been present, i.e. sadness. She may have showed duping delight I don’t really remember. Sorry for the confusion.

          But as for your statement that if a person feels anything it will show even if we miss it, I would encourage you to read Dr. Ekman’s book Telling Lies. I believe he talks about that subject and explains that it doesn’t always show. He even video taped his subjects and played them back in slow motion. But when it does show it can be so quick as to miss it.

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  • Sherlock

    The videos of the expressions are not micro expressions they last to long their only suppose to last for no more than a fifth of a second

    • Danielle McRae

      Hi Sherlock, the videos are meant to be exaggerated to give you a longer look at the expression. This will help to see it faster in real life! -Danielle and the Science of People Team

  • http://twidder David Newton

    Hi back April I was told I have aspbergers and ocd and other things I’m learning body language and some times the way I do things it routine and my wife gets bad at me I don’t blame her I’m watching lie to me and the finder to help I’m seeing doctors to help me

  • http://twitter David Newton

    Hi I have aspbergers and ocd I’m working on things sometimes its hard I watch lie to me and finder

    • Danielle McRae

      Hi David, thank you for your comment. Reading facial expressions and body language definitely takes time and practice! Lie to Me is a great show to practice on. Keep it up! -Danielle and the Science of People Team

  • Linn

    There is always expression shown, the thing is that it flashes by so fast that we
    miss it. The above examples are exaggerated ( I believe so that we get
    it). When we see emotion this clearly, is usually from a child, or young person who hasn’t learned to hide it or a person who wants us to know exactly how they feel. With a more sophisticated individual, those MICRO expressions are very hard to see. That’s why the star in “Lie to Me” prefers to LISTEN and not interact too much with the person he’s reading, that way the concentration is at a maximum in order to SEE the expression. When we are talking and worrying about getting on the person’s good side, having them feel we care, etc., our concentration is compromised and we’ll miss some if not all the clues. If the conversation is long we may be able to sense or feel more that we see what the other person is feeling.

  • Andy

    Lie to me led me here

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  • Erika

    They should of specified that those are exaggerated expressions to help you see these “microexpressions” and then made another example of a real microexpression for a couple of seconds.

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