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Micro Expressions: The Truth Is in the Face
Sep 1, 2016

Have you ever seen someone who, for a split second, looked happy when they weren’t supposed to? What you saw was a masked micro expression. Micro expressions are automatic facial expressions that reflect the emotions you are feeling. Whatever your ethnicity, religion, or age, you make micro expressions. In other words, we all express happiness in the same way.

Since we cannot help micro expressions, they can expose us when we lie. Psychiatrists, scientists, law enforcement officers, and other professions carefully study micro expressions, hoping to better recognize them. The study of micro expressions is a developing scientific field.

History The modern idea of analyzing micro expressions originated with Paul Ekman and Walter Friesen. Ekman and Friesen used micro expressions in their study of deception, published in 1971.  According to his book Telling Lies, published on January 26, 2009, Ekman was asked by his colleagues if there was a way to tell if a patient was lying to a psychiatrist. As a result, he started looking through his old patients’ filmed interviews and found a perfect example in Mary, a forty-two year old housewife, who had attempted suicide three times.

Mary was suffering from midlife depression: her kids had grown and they didn’t need her assistance anymore, and her husband was always at work. She felt useless. In the first few weeks in the hospital, she was treated with medication and psychiatric therapy. She appeared to respond well to the treatments, telling her doctor that she was feeling much better.  In one of her filmed interviews she told the doctor she wanted a weekend pass. Before she received the pass, she admitted to her doctor that she had been lying about the way she felt so she could get the pass and confessed that she still wanted to commit suicide. The group of doctors gathered and watched the filmed interview to search for any clues which showed that Mary was depressed the entire time. The filmed interview fooled many of the doctors because they all thought that she seemed genuinely happy. They watched the interview over and over again. They tried viewing it in slow motion to see if any micro expressions would appear. Eventually they found something. Before she answered the doctor about her future plans, the researchers saw a quick facial expression of agony; it was so quick, they had missed it before. Using this ability to identify seemingly hidden micro expressions, Ekman did more research and has worked with many individuals. Eventually, seven universal micro expressions were discovered.

Types / definitions of micro expressions The seven types of micro expressions are: Anger, Sadness, Happiness, Disgust, Fear, Surprise, and Contempt. Here is how the seven are defined:

Anger Anger tends to get people in trouble because it triggers the need to react to one’s environment. People tend to release their anger when triggered. They won’t always know what caused their explosion; it could be as simple as something familiar being out of place. Their anger can be expressed in many forms. Not all of these forms will be violent, of course. For example, a person might get angry when they are driving and traffic starts to form. Even if they do not want to express their anger, it will still be there. A sudden, quick glimpse of anger will form in the person’s face, lasting less than a second. This is the micro expression. When expressing anger, the eyebrows and nose scrunch up, the mouth tightly closes, and the eyes will give a certain glare.

Sadness Sadness is seen more frequently in a person’s life than one can imagine. It can be caused by the loss of a loved one, getting hurt by someone, an unhappy marriage, and more. Even though these kinds of events happen to everyone, people still tend to try hiding their sadness. They may want to hide it because they feel threatened by the situation, or they think other people will consider them weak. They may not want to admit to feeling sad. Of course, they are not exactly hiding their sadness. If someone is observant, they can see the hints of sadness concealed in another person’s face. It will be a quick expression but it will contain of slight pulling down of the lip corners, droopy eyelids, and a loss of focus in the eyes.

Disgust Have you ever discovered stinky leftover food in the fridge or watched a video about a person eating bugs? Either one leads to the same reaction: a scrunched up nose and a raised upper lip. This is another micro expression: disgust. And like all micro expressions, it cannot be stopped. If a person is at a dinner their friend cooked, but they do not like the food, they will try to hide their feelings out of kindness. But even if the person is good at convincing their friend the food tastes good, their disgust will still show in their face.

Fear Fear might be caused by a spider or a frightening mask, but the face reacts the same way: the eyebrows raise and pull together; the upper eyelid rises; the lower lip is tense; the lips are stretched horizontally back to the ears. All of this happens in just a split second. Some criminals have the expression of fear when they are about to get caught. It can also be triggered by simple things, such as flipping through channels and seeing a scary scenario or face. A person will still express fear, even though they know that the threat is not real.

Surprise The micro expression for surprise is very similar to the one for fear. The major difference is that a person is not scared, but shocked. The elements of surprise are raised eyebrows, open mouth, and widened eyes. A perfect example of this is when a person walks into a surprise birthday party. Sometimes people may try to hide their surprise because they don’t want to be embarrassed. But a micro expression of surprise is evident whether one tries to hide it or not.

Happiness Happiness occurs when a person is filled with glee and joy. Genuine happiness causes the lip corners to raise, making wrinkles around the mouth. Wrinkles also appear in the corner of the eyes. A person can be happy for many reasons. For instance, a person might feel happiness when his or her daughter visits for the holidays. Something as simple as receiving a compliment might also make a person happy. A person might want to hide their happiness for many reasons. It might be because they don’t want to reveal the cause of their happiness, or maybe because they don’t feel it’s right to feel happy about the cause of their happiness. Even though they try to hide it, the emotion slips out and reveals a micro expression. Observant people might be able to notice this.

Contempt Contempt happens when a person is full of him or herself. It occurs when a person believes that they are better than someone else. For example, a student might score the highest grade on a test. Though he might try his best to not reveal his pride, it will still show. One corner of the lips will rise. This can also occur when a rich person looks down on a poor person. These are the seven micro expressions scientists have identified. Knowing them can only help you if you know how to interpret them in the real world.

Micro expressions in the real world Knowledge of micro expressions can be used for many things. Many professionals are trained to see micro expressions and observe body language. Ekman has a training program and states that ordinary people can learn a lot about micro expressions in a short period of time. This knowledge can allow them to see things they’ve never noticed before. This training program is called F.A.C.E. (Facial Awareness Compassion Emotion) Training and it is available at Ekman’s website (  Many of the professionals who receive training need to recognize micro expressions for their job. FBI and CIA professionals, for example, deal with people who lie. If they cannot tell who is lying, they will have trouble doing their jobs.

Recognizing micro expressions can help in many other jobs, too. It can even help teachers who may want to see if a student did their homework. Micro expressions help us to see lies. A person might be suicidal but might smile and say that she is fine. But that smile might be masking agony, if you know how to see it.

There is also the Facial Acts Coding System (FACS). FACS uses Action Units (AUs) to measure micro expressions. FACS is more about measuring than training: its coder breaks facial expressions down into the specific AUs that caused the movement This enables the software to measure  expressions, as there is a different measurement that goes with each expression.

It has been scientifically proven that micro expressions are universal. Ekman proved this by going to New Guinea and testing out if a tribe that has had no contact with the outside world still had the same micro expressions as every other society. His results concluded that the tribe’s facial expressions were the same as everyone else’s.  No matter what nationality, age, or race, people all have the same universal expressions. We all feel the same emotions. We are made from the same material.

Micro expressions are extraordinary: they help people to see things that they have never noticed. Overall, learning about micro expressions can help increase your understanding of human nature – and it will help you to better read people.  And though micro expressions let you know what a person is feeling, they won’t let you know why they are feeling it. So when you accuse someone of eating the last piece of pie, maybe they are really just hiding something else.


  • Ekman, P. 1985. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: Norton.