Micro Expressions

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. Dr. Ekman’s research has revealed that seven emotions have universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness. You can learn to spot micro expressions using the micro expressions training tools personally developed by Dr. Ekman.


Detecting micro expressions can help you:

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Dr. Ekman’s research has shown that we often miss facial expressions when they contradict words being spoken. Yet micro facial 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.

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History of micro expressions

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.

In 1967, Dr. Ekman began to study deception, starting with clinical cases in which the patients falsely claimed not to be depressed in order to commit suicide when not under supervision. In the very first case, when films were examined in slow motion, Ekman and Friesen saw micro facial expressions which revealed strong negative feelings the patient was trying to hide.

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).