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?
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.
A 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:
-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
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
-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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-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:
-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:
-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!
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 Secrets 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