The face and its expressions, also known as microexpressions, are the window to the soul, if you know how to read them. The good news is we can tell a lot about someone by their face.

The Face of a Leader:

Look at these faces of CEOs. Can you tell which ones have the most profitable companies?

reading microexpressions

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

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How to Read Facial Expressions:

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.

facial microexpressions

microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that appears on a person’s face according to the emotions 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 often is 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 never have seen TV or movie characters to model themselves after. He also found that congenitally blind individuals, those blind since birth, also make the same facial expressions, even though they never have 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 also will find that if you make the facial expression, you also begin feeling the emotion yourself! Emotions not only cause facial expressions, facial expressions also cause emotions.

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The 7 Microexpressions

1) Surprise Microexpression:

  • The eyebrows are raised and curved.
  • Skin below the brow is stretched.
  • Horizontal wrinkles show across the forehead.
  • Eyelids are opened, white of the eye showing above and below.
  • Jaw drops open and teeth are parted but there is no tension or stretching of the mouth.
Surprise Microexpression

2) Fear Microexpression:

  • Eyebrows are raised and drawn together, usually in a flat line.
  • Wrinkles in the forehead are in the center between the eyebrows, not across.
  • Upper eyelid is raised, but the lower lid is tense and drawn up.
  • Eyes have the upper white showing, but not the lower white.
  • Mouth is open and lips are slightly tensed or stretched and drawn back.
Fear Microexpression

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3) Disgust Microexpression:

  • Upper lip is raised.
  • Upper teeth may be exposed.
  • Nose is wrinkled.
  • Cheeks are raised.

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

Disgust Microexpression

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4) Anger Microexpression:

  • The eyebrows are lowered and drawn together.
  • Vertical lines appear between the eyebrows.
  • Lower lid is tensed.
  • Eyes are in hard stare or bulging.
  • Lips can be pressed firmly together, with corners down, or in a 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)

Anger Microexpression

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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 eyelid may show wrinkles or be tense.
  • Crow’s feet near the outside of the eyes.

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

Happiness Microexpression

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6) Sadness Microexpression:

  • Inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn in and then up.
  • Skin below the eyebrows is 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!

Sadness Microexpression

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7) Contempt / Hate Microexpression:

  • One side of the mouth is raised.
Contempt Microexpression

Practice these emotions on yourself, and see if you can detect them in the people in your life. Identifying the microexpression is only a piece of the puzzle. We want to help you understand each of the expressions, specifically the science behind each emotion.

Intensive online training to level up your charisma, communicate powerfully, and take command of your presence.

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

51 replies on “The Definitive Guide to Reading Microexpressions (Facial Expressions)”

  1. Valuable info. Lucky me I found your website by accident. I bookmarked it. This article is genuinely good and I have learned lot of things from it concerning blogging. thanks.

  2. Bhaskar

    Hi can we know emotions of people by their facial expressions? Example: can we detect highly depressed people by their facial expressions?

  3. Jessica Preston

    I’m very fascinated by this field but I’m not sure why there isn’t more focus on the complex movements such as disgust?
    This article or this on there are only 2 movements:

    But if you see Wikipedias entry in regards to disgust you get this sentence:
    “The facial expression of disgust was found to be one of these facial expressions. This characteristic facial expression includes slightly narrowed brows, a curled upper lip, wrinkling of the nose and visible protrusions of the tongue, although different elicitors may produce different forms of this expression”

  4. Mike

    The Contempt micro expression is a smirk. There is a dating advice guru on you tube named Marmi who advises using the “smirk” to attract women. What do you think about that Vanessa?

  5. Lisa

    My 15 year old daughter and I just watched the first 2 episodes of Lie To Me and wow, I love this topic so much! I am going into nursing and want to pursue this now as well!

  6. KKPE

    I have been focusing on people’s micro expressions for several years now. Knowing how someone really feels about something is very helpful. What is also very helpful is practicing the projection of your own micro expressions and thus being able to manipulate others. I don’t mean this in a way that is deceitful but rather a way to reinforce what you are feeling. Being able to consciously express your own m/e can make others feel very sure about your feeling and intentions. You could say that it leaves others having a strong ‘feeling’ that you are trust worthy. Yes it could be used for ill intent but I hope most will not.
    The one thing I have learned about people that could be said is universal is that everyone lies to some degree or another. Their micro expressions give them away every time if you are able to correctly read them. Being able to correctly interpret m/e’s can often times leave you surprised, disappointed and even hurt. It is very important to make sure that what you saw in someone else is really what you saw.

  7. Lise Jamieson

    Has anyone noticed how Donald Trump exposes his bottom teeth a lot? Just wondering what this facial expression reveals.

  8. Anna Saldi

    I love that the show Lie To Me brought this sort of research into the spotlight – microexpressions are huge (pardon the pun!)
    The videos were very helpful, I’m going to watch them many times over so that I can spot these fleeting expressions on people around me. Bookmarking for many more visits!

  9. Daniel Everett Farrer

    Microexpressions are amazing! I see them all the time in my line of work. I love being able to point them out during sessions and helping people communicate more authentically.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Yes, authentic communication is the name of the game. We’re so glad you find them helpful!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

  10. Lina Martinez

    I simply can’t get enough! Since discovering the science of people I have started to pay extra attention to my facial expressions as well as others. My question is how come we flash a sad micro expression when we see something extremely cute or someone does something that makes us so happy? It’s a flash of sad followed by happy. I noticed this too when people are indulging in a guilty pleasure, I see disgust and happy formed together. “do you want to join me or some cake?” then a flash of happy and disgust formed into one. Is it common for people to blend conflicting expressions like that?

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi Lina, excellent question! Yes, often times, we will show one expression followed by another quickly or seemingly two expressions at once. When we are extremely happy, we often cry or show sadness to release the pent up feelings. With the cake example, we’re happy (because who doesn’t love cake?) but also possibly disgusted by the food choice we’re about to make.

      Danielle | Science of People Team

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi! In this study, the participants were shown faces of unrecognizable Fortune 500 CEOs. They were told that these individuals were CEOs and asked the participants to rate them from least profitable to most profitable. The participants DID NOT know the profitability/wealth of the faces before deciding. Thanks for reading!

      Danielle | Science of People Team

  11. garima kaushal

    hi guys..
    I just finished watching the season lie to me and it really grabbed my interest..
    would love to learn more about this..
    Could anyone help me in guiding which book should i start this with… I was going through all the books by Dr.paul Ekman, just not sure which one should be the first..

  12. 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.

    1. 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

  13. 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

  14. 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

  15. 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?

    1. Anonym

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

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

    1. 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…

    2. Janco Kruger

      I’m now at season 3 episode 9 and I love it. That’s what motivated me to do research on micro expressions and body language.

  16. 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!

    1. 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?

    2. ashley

      I am here too because of my interest in the show “Lie to Me”. I have been using the detectors with my husband, needless to say he doesn’t like it when he’s in the wrong. haha

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