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How to Read Microexpressions and Improve Your Observation Skills, with Dr. David Matsumoto

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In this episode of our series, “The World’s Most Interesting People,” I sat down with Dr. David Matsumoto. He’s the director and lead researcher for Humintell and is the founder and director of San Francisco State University’s Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory.

Dr. Matsumoto is a world-renowned expert in the field of emotion, nonverbal behavior, deception and culture. He has produced more than 400 academic works, including books, book chapters, journal articles, and conference presentations. He sat down with me to discuss how to use observation skills to determine intent and deception.

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Meet Dr. Matsumoto

In addition to his academic work, Dr. Matsumoto is the author of The Handbook of Culture and Psychology and the APA Handbook of Nonverbal Communication.

And something a little unexpected: He’s a 7th degree black belt in judo.

How do you balance it all? Do you use productivity hacks?

Dr. Matsumoto attributes all his success to his commitment to judo. He’s practiced judo since he was seven years old–meaning he’s done it consistently over the last 50 years! He practices judo almost every night of the week and that doesn’t include tournaments or teaching. He schedules all of his academic work around judo, and this activity has helped him to be more efficient and structured. It doesn’t hurt that he’s naturally disciplined too. 

I just try to produce everyday.

Dr. Matsumoto

Dr. Matsumoto’s daily structure reminds me of the research I read on the ebbs and flows of movement in open spaces. In big, open spaces, such as train terminals, the walking traffic is chaotic and messy as no one quite knows where to walk or how to pass by other people. However, if you interrupt the traffic with an object, such as a bench or a roundabout, people flow more smoothly since there’s a more defined traffic flow.

Dr. Matsumoto’s “bench” is judo–it helps the rest of his life flow more efficiently. Judo serves as an everyday refresher for him.

Action Step: What’s your judo? Do you have a “bench” in your life that can help you take a mental break you can carve the rest of your life around? What’s the one thing in your life that you aren’t willing to sacrifice? Adding an obstacle in your routine can help you structure and schedule everything else.

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Microexpressions and Human Lie Detection

I read your blog, Humintell religiously. You always have new, exciting research and one new finding really fascinated me, which is the first scientific study proving that microexpressions can be used as a key factor in detecting lies. Can you tell us more about this research?

Dr. Matsumoto told us there’s plenty of rhetoric describing microexpressions as indicators of deception (or not) that has been around for decades. Several leading researchers in the field of microexpressions and nonverbal behavior are proponents of the idea that microexpressions can be used as a factor in deception detection. However, there’s never been a scientifically-proven study published in a peer-reviewed journal to support this claim until now.

Read the full study, “Microexpressions Differentiate Truths From Lies About Future Malicious Intent” here and the Humintell summary here.

So what exactly is a microexpression? A microexpression is a brief, involuntary expression that shows a hidden emotion.

Previous research has suggested that microexpressions occur as quickly as 1/25th of a second, but Dr. Matsumoto advised us against using this estimation. He believes this estimation is inaccurate and doesn’t quite know how this number was calculated. Instead, his research reveals that microexpressions happen fast, but not as fast as the previous studies claim. His research shows that microexpressions occur for approximately half of a second or less. This sounds fast, but this is actually much slower in time than the older research claimed. 

Previous microexpression research showed that microexpressions didn’t occur enough in experiments to be used as an accurate indicator of deception. In Dr. Matsumoto’s opinion, this is because the research measured microexpressions restrictively and used an inaccurate estimation of how fast they occur.

What was your goal for using microexpressions for detection and how did you get people to lie in your lab?

Dr. Matsumoto walked us through how his lab designed a “mock crime” to get experiment participants to lie.

Individuals came into the lab and some were asked to a commit a crime. Of course, this crime was limited in scope and within the contexts of the experiment. For this particular study, participants were asked to steal something from a room.

Before the theft, participants were interviewed for the purpose of sharing their intent. This was an opportunity for the researchers to get inside the mind of the participant before the action took place, to determine their intent. These screening interviews were brief, around 60-90 seconds, to quickly gauge someone’s mental state before committing a crime. 

Dr. Matsumoto advised us to pay special attention to one element, the stakes surrounding the experiment. Participants have to feel there are stakes or consequences involved for there to be an accurate portrayal of emotions and behaviors.

For example, in experiments involving first year psychology students, there often aren’t any stakes involved in their participation. So, often the students’ behaviors aren’t the same as if there were stakes involved. They don’t feel emotionally-invested. They aren’t thinking twice.

In Dr. Matsumoto’s lab, they only use community participants and encourage all ages to participate. This is a much more accurate sample size (compared to a lab that only uses freshmen college students) that reflects a greater portion of the population. A number of manipulations are imposed to show the participants the stakes involved. His research team also meticulously measured participants’ emotionality–are they displaying fear or another negative emotion typical of having something to lose?

Did you notice the same microexpressions coming up over and over again?

Dr. Matsumoto said they did see a range of expressions of liars in the study, and they almost always correlated to negative emotions. These include contempt, disgust, anger, fear and sadness.

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What’s interesting is that the same context can produce different expressions and emotions for different people. For example, someone may show anger if they feel their statement is being attacked, or someone may show sadness if they’re feeling extreme discomfort in the situation.

Guilt doesn’t have a universal expression or universal signal. 

Dr. Matsumoto defines guilt nonverbal as an interpretation of another emotion given a specific context. This means someone’s guilt may come out as disgust, contempt, anger, or another negative emotion. Special Note: Have you played our “Two Truths and One Lie” a lie game? Watch here:

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In these types of “spot the lie” games, you are much less likely to see a negative leak of a microexpression since there are no stakes for the person lying. In this video above, I’m having fun with you–I’m not trying to hide anything, I’m not ashamed of my answers, so it’s unlikely I’d show an obvious negative expression in my lie.

Action Step: Look for research experiments that have stakes for their participants. Stakes are one of the best indicators for accurate behavior. And if you want even more on human lie detection, check out our course.

Observation for Real Life 

What’s a strategy you’ve taught people like the FBI that us normal folks can use?

Dr. Matsumoto is a former instructor for the FBI National Academy. He told us:

If you want to be better at this skill [decoding, reading people, spotting lies], observe.

Dr. Matsumoto

Based on his experience, Dr. Matsumoto sees so many people having interactions who are not really observing. He believes it is absolutely possible to be both an active listener and an active observer.

This is not a passive task, Dr. Matsumoto revealed. To be a good observer, one must notice the signals occurring and also process what those signals may be revealing about the person.

This is a tough cognitive task and takes practice! 

How would someone break down this observation skill into homework for themselves?

Dr. Matsumoto suggested honing your observation abilities on your commute, at work or even sitting on a park bench. He also offered you this challenge:

Challenge: Beef up your observation skills by counting how many times I (Vanessa) raised my right hand in the above video. See the final count at the end!

Dr. Matsumoto tested this exact observational challenge when he traveled to Japan–a self-proclaimed, conservatively expressive culture. He watched a five-minute video of a Japanese man talking and counted hundreds of hand gestures. In five minutes! This is way more than the person thought they used. Sometimes, how we think we express is different from what we actually express. This is why it’s so important to observe our own nonverbal and that of others.

Do you have a favorite show that you watch to practice your decoding skills?

Dr. Matsumoto recommended watching the news to see expressions in their natural habitat. He especially likes watching politicians in interviews. This context leads to natural displays of expressions like a scripted or prepared message can’t provide. 

Challenge: Pick one of the seven microexpressions and count how many times someone uses it. This can be in person or on TV!

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Behind the Scenes of Humintell

You’ve done so much research. Do you have a favorite study you’ve facilitated?

My favorite study is always the last one.

Dr. Matsumoto

Dr. Matsumoto revealed that he is so proud of his current research and that every time he publishes a new study, he feels it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Now that’s what I call living in the moment!

Can you share anything unpublished you’re working on now or is it all secret?

Dr. Matsumoto shared that he’s currently incredibly interested in clusters of nonverbal behavior.

Analyzing clusters simply means using multiple channels to determine intent and potential deception and can use both verbal and nonverbal signals. When there’s extreme cognitive load or pressure on the brain (this typically happens when someone lies), signaling can occur in lots of different ways–someone may gesture more or less than when they are telling the truth, someone’s speech may change or a variety of other behavioral changes may surface.

In human lie detection, there’s no Pinocchio’s nose, meaning there’s no one cue that means someone is lying. When you examine clusters, you get a much clearer and accurate picture of a subject’s mental state.

You’re studying people all day long. Has anything you’ve learned professionally been brought into your personal life or changed anything about the way you conduct your personal life? 

There’s no way to turn it off, Dr. Matsumoto told me.

What’s important to remember, he suggested, is that anyone can learn a skill, but it’s someone’s intent behind that skill that affects behavior. Being able to read and decode people may make someone an incredible leader or influencer if they have positive intent. However, with malicious intent, these same skills can cause someone to act negatively. 

You can use it for good or bad.

Dr. Matsumoto

If I were to give you a grant for unlimited funding, what would you want to study?

Dr. Matsumoto said he’d want to study the same things, but he’d go about his research in an entirely different way.

Right now, academics are siloed by department, meaning psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, etc. all are doing separate research in different spaces.

With unlimited funding, he’d bring these experts together to look at nonverbal behavior from all angles and drivers of the human experience. Basically, he’d create an unstoppable interdisciplinary team to understand how nonverbal all fits together. Unfortunately, the current education model has created what Dr. Matsumoto refers to as the “Humpty Dumpty” effect, which is that everything for one particular topic has been broken up into a million pieces for experts to study separately. This can make the bigger picture or usable findings scattered.

A lot of research is trial and error–not every experiment succeeds. Do you have an example of a past experiment with a hopeful hypothesis that didn’t pan out as you thought? Is there one study that keeps you up at night?

Dr. Matsumoto said yes, many of his experiments turned out differently than he expected. More than that, however, is the surmounting research that he hasn’t published yet. He’s been published in academic journals more than 160 times, yet there are hundreds more studies that either didn’t make the cut or haven’t been formally written into a paper.

One area he’s currently studying is nonverbal signals of triumph and how other mental states contribute to nonverbal behavior. He told us that nothing keeps him up at night–he’s too exhausted after his nightly judo practice!

The good news is there is lots more research to come from Dr. Matsumoto’s lab, and we can’t wait to share it with you!

Follow along with Dr. Matsumoto’s journey:

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