Micro expressions are very brief facial expressions, lasting only a fraction of a second. They occur when a person either deliberately or unconsciously conceals a feeling. Seven emotions have universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness. You can learn to spot them.
Haggard and Isaacs were the first to describe micro expressions (calling them “micro momentary expressions”) in their study of psychotherapeutic interviews. They explained the appearance of “micros” as the result of repression; the patient did not know how he or she was feeling. Haggard and Isaacs also implied that these fleeting expressions could not be recognized in real time, but Ekman and Friesen later showed that, with training, anyone could learn to see “micros” when they occurred. Ekman and Friesen also broadened the explanation of why micros occur.
Micro expressions happen when people have hidden their feelings from themselves (repression) or when they deliberately try to conceal their feelings from others. Importantly, both instances look the same; you cannot tell from the expression itself whether it is the product of suppression (deliberate concealment) or repression (unconscious concealment).
Macro: normal expressions usually last between ½-second and 4 seconds. They often repeat, and fit with what is said and the sound of the person’s voice.
Micro: These are very brief, usually lasting between 1/15 and 1/25 of a second. They often display a concealed emotion and are the result of suppression or repression.
False: A deliberately-made simulation of an emotion not being felt.
Masked: A false expression made to cover a macro expression.
Why are Micro Expressions Important?
Learning to spot micro expressions can help you:
Improve your emotional intelligence
One of the keys to improving emotional intelligence is developing skills which help you understand the human face. Unlike language or gesture the face is a universal system of signals which reflect the moment-to-moment fluctuations in a person’s emotional state. Learning how to read micro expressions will help you recognize feelings in others and, at the same time, you will likely become more aware of your own feelings.
Develop your capacity for empathy
Emotions play a key role in all of our interactions. Common expressions on the face — macro expressions — may not accurately portray how someone is feeling. When you can recognize the fleeting and more evasive expressions that arise, you become more sensitive to the range of emotions others wish you to know they are feeling. You also become more skilled at noticing when an emotion is just beginning, when an emotion is being concealed, and when a person is unaware of what they are actually feeling. These are skills that can help you become more sensitive to the real feelings of others, and to let others know, when appropriate, that they are truly “seen.”
Recent research by Helen Reiss and others has shown that physicians’ ability to recognize emotion from briefly presented facial expressions predicted patients’ ratings of the physicians’ empathy.
Spot Concealed Emotions
When someone tries to conceal his or her emotions, “leakage” of that emotion will often be evident in that person’s face. The leakage may be limited to one region of the face (a mini or subtle expression), or may be a quick expression flashed across the whole face (a micro expression). Most people do not recognize these important clues, but, with training, you can learn to spot them as they occur. See Paul Ekman’s book Telling Lies for a full analysis of these and other clues of concealment and deceit.
Improve your relationships
The face offers the best window we have on how other people are feeling. Improving your ability to recognize others’ emotions will increase the intimate understanding that allows you to connect with other people. Research has also found that people who learned to spot micro expressions were better liked by co-workers.
Dr. Ekman’s research has shown that we often miss facial expressions when they contradict words being spoken. Yet facial micro expressions are a universal system — everybody has them, and they warrant our attention. Even people from vastly different cultures, people who don’t speak your language, still have the same emotions and will show the same expressions. When you learn to recognize micro expressions, spotting the discrepancies between what you hear and what you see applies across the board – from friends and family to total strangers.
Recognize and better manage your own emotions
Learning to recognize facial expressions of emotion in others helps you learn to recognize your own emotions. Dr. Ekman’s research reveals that simply mimicking an emotion by manipulating one’s own facial expressions will initiate the physiological experience of that emotion – you’ll feel it arise within yourself. When you purposefully train yourself to link facial expressions with internal experience, you improve your conscious awareness of your internal emotions. Thus, you improve your chances of recognizing when you are becoming emotionally triggered. This awareness can help you manage the expression of your emotions.
Develop Social Skills
Individuals on the autism spectrum have benefited greatly with micro expression training, most notably with the Subtle Expression Training Tool (eSETT). People with schizophrenia have also shown positive results. Research done by Tamara Russell and others has found that training with Ekman’s Micro Expression Training Tool (eMETT) enabled people with schizophrenia to recognize emotion in others on par with normal persons. View our research page for further studies.
How can I learn Micro Expressions?
There are many resources to help you learn how to spot micro expressions. Paul Ekman has developed scientifically-proven training tools. There are many books available and a library of research papers updated on an ongoing basis. We’d suggest you browse informational videos and follow the work of our colleagues (see FAQ). Additionally, we provide photographs for training and research purposes.