Microexpressions refer to involuntary facial expression that occurs for a short moment based on the specific emotion being experienced.

What Is Microexpression?

Microexpressions are the fleeting facial expressions of various emotions. These specific expressions are extremely brief and occur for a fraction of a second. These involuntary emotional facial outcomes are almost impossible to fake sometimes and solely responsible for exposing people’s true emotions. Humans use facial expressions to describe different types of emotions in different types of contexts. Facial expressions are considered to be one of the most important parts related to human communication. The human face is solely responsible for communicating and portraying ideas and thoughts and emotions. A 2007 research paper 1 suggested that facial expressions are the reflection of experiences. These expressions are the configuration of several small face muscle movements that are used by humans to convey their discrete emotional state.

Understanding Microexpressions

Microexpressions are often misinterpreted or missed altogether as these occur for a very short moment. Another aspect of this type of expression is that these expressions unconsciously portray concealed 2 emotions. These expressions are common across all cultures, religions, races, and genders. Microexpressions can be categorized into seven different types of universal expressions that include:

  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Researchers 3 explain that these expressions are extremely fast and last for only 1/15ths of a second. Despite occurring for just a moment, this type of expression can correctly demonstrate longer-lasting true instinctual emotions humans feel while reacting to an individual, a specific event, or a particular situation. There is no possible way to prevent these expressions from occurring.

Most facial expressions stick for a quite long time, but not all. Those facial expressions that pass quickly are considered to be microexpressions. These are almost unnoticeable to the casual observer. These expressions are the best indicator of people’s inner emotions. One can differentiate truths from lies by keenly observing this type of expression. It is an extremely crucial and important skill 4 to learn as this observing process that includes spotting and interpreting is considered to be extremely difficult. This skill helps in improving a person’s ultimate understanding of another’s emotions. It develops social intelligence and makes people capable of recognizing other people’s emotions. This information is quite essential for navigating human relationships. It improves the social competence level that people should continue to cultivate throughout their life.

Discovery Of The Idea Of Microexpressions

The concept of microexpressions has its roots in the inhibition hypothesis of Darwin (1872) 5 . But the idea was first discovered by psychotherapists Ernest A. Haggard and Kenneth S. Isaacs 6 . They explained how they recognized the micro momentary expressions of humans while scanning motion films of psychotherapy to research non-verbal communications between psychotherapists and patients. In their study, they searched for the indications of non-verbal communication while playing video footage at a much slower rate than its original speed. Darwin’s study 7 suggested that facial expressions cannot be controlled voluntarily even if people try to control their expressions. Studies by Haggard and Isaacs verified the existence of this kind of expression a century after Darwin’s hypothesis. Later a 2018 study 8 explained that this type of expression occurs when people try to be deceitful about their emotional expressions.

Understanding The Types

Humans are capable of creating various facial expressions to convey their emotions. There are 7 basic microexpressions: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, contempt, and sadness. According to research 9 , congenitally blind people spontaneously portray similar facial expressions despite not being able to see these emotions on others’ faces. This supported the evidence of microexpressions being biologically innate. It is not something that a person can learn from the environment through imitation. This type of facial expression is often very subtle and is considered limited to certain parts of the face sometimes.

The 7 basic types of microexpressions are:

1. Surprise

It is a very common emotion that occurs when a person sees or hears something unexpected. Humans are used to a specific kind of environment that they are in. The human brain is continuously developing a structure of the material world. People’s brains can predict the future based on what has happened in the past. The surprise reaction is triggered when some unusual happenings run against the prediction of the human brain. This situation forces a person’s attention towards novelty. Raising the eyebrows, opening the mouth, opening the eyes wider, and dropping the jaw are some of the facial muscle movements related to this specific expression. Studies 10 suggested that the surprise expression is extremely essential for human survival. Sometimes, people get confused between the surprise and fear reaction. Surprise expression refers to the eyebrows pulled up in a relaxed manner while the fear reaction portrays horizontal folds on the forehead.

2. Fear

A 2002 research paper 11 explained fear as a primordial human reaction or expression that can be found in all mammals and other species. This expression is often linked with the reaction of shock, especially when occurring in rapid microexpressions. The reason behind the fear expression relies upon a specific circuit 12 in the human brain that responds to any potential threats within a fraction of seconds. Two parts of the brain’s emotional center, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, are involved in this process of triggering the emotion of fear. Eyebrows raised and drawn together, wrinkles in the forehead, and opened mouth are some of the facial muscle movements related to the expression of fear.

Humans can foresee the possible danger or threat that is coming their way. The emotion of fear helps humans to identify whether something is an actual threat to their physical existence or not. The reason behind this is when people get scared, their wide eyes increase their field of view. The open mouth transmits the signal if someone has to shout for help in a threatening situation. It helps to breathe in enough oxygen which may be needed if someone has to run away or fight. A fearful expression of an individual can increase the fear of another individual.

3. Anger

The expression of anger can be triggered by different types of situations such as when someone feels threatened, is unable to reach a specific goal, or is treated unfairly. It doesn’t matter whether the threat is real or imaginary as the emotion of anger helps one to mobilize the energy resources to fight it. Anger can be characterized by the lowered eyebrows, tensed lowered lips, hard stare of eyes, firmly pressed lips, and dilated nostrils. Anger is considered to be a natural reaction to certain environmental threats. It prevents people from being injured, even killed, or being mistreated. As the expression of anger is treated as a strong social norm violation, most people may try to hide their facial expressions in social situations when angry. A 2004 study 13 has suggested that anger is the fastest facial expression to be detected or identified.

4. Happiness

Happiness or joy can be identified by exposed teeth, a wrinkle from the outer nose to the outer lip, raised cheeks, and wrinkles in the lower eyelid. A 2011 research paper 14 has shown that happiness is one of the most complicated expressions as people try to fake their happiness most of the time. The emotion of joy includes several positive emotions such as relief, compassion, ecstasy, sensory pleasure, wonderment, and even happiness over someone else’s misfortune. Most happiness expressions can be characterized by people’s smiles. A fake smile often involves only the lips, not the whole face. A real emotion of happiness lasts on the face for a very short moment while the fake one stays for much longer.
One can differentiate real happiness from a fake one by observing wrinkles around the eyes, the genuine smile, and the relaxed eye muscles.

5. Disgust

People display the expression of disgust when responding to something bad or nasty. According to a 2018 study 15 , the main key to portraying yourself as attractive and romantic is important to avoid the emotion of disgust at any cost. If someone tries to suppress the feeling of disgust, it may even have bad effects. Disgust can be identified by several facial muscle movements that include narrowed eyes, raised upper lips, wrinkled nose, tongue sticking out, raised cheeks, and exposed upper teeth. This expression prevents people from being contaminated and poisoned. After feeling disgusted, the common reaction of a person is to withdraw himself/herself from the situation.

6. Sadness

Sadness occurs as a sense of emotional pain in response to the sense of loss. People can experience sadness because of various situations such as disappointment of the expectations, severe grief. Sadness is the most difficult expression to fake among the 7 basic microexpressions. A 2014 research paper 16 explained that it is the hardest also to detect as the emotion of sadness is often not very large and unnoticeable. But sadness is one of the longer-lasting facial expressions. The emotion of sadness can be characterized by triangulated skin below the eyebrows, drawn down lip corners, pouted out lower lips, and drawn up inner eyebrow corners. The expression of sadness signals people that someone needs their help. This particular expression is capable of automatically eliciting empathy in humans.

7. Contempt

The emotion of contempt is considered to be associated with the negative feeling of disrespect, dislike, offensiveness. It is the only asymmetrical microexpression among the 7 basic expressions. Similar to hate, the emotion of contempt arises in a person by the feeling of superiority over another. This feeling allows one to think like only they are correct while others are always wrong. Contempt can be characterized by a few facial muscle movements such as skeptical expression, half-smiling face, and raised one side of the mouth. It is often considered to be a destructive emotion and awakens the feeling of being superior. The outcome of the expression is a negative judgment that has already taken place. Studies 17 have found that the concept of psychological distancing is interlinked with this particular expression. It often prevents the feelings of interpersonal understanding and empathy in humans.

Controlled microexpressions

Human expressions are considered to be certain controlled instances. Some facial expressions are voluntary while others are involuntary. Some are truthful while others are misleading. Facial expressions can be controlled by pathological liars and actors. The skill to control the expression is a matter of training. People who are natural liars have greater ease in fooling others. Those people often know about their ability to control their expressions. Researches 18 have shown that humans can simulate an emotion. People are capable of creating an impression of feeling emotions when they are not in reality. Microexpressions can be controlled by certain issues like culture or social conventions. According to a 2011 research paper 19 , many young boys in the United States learn the cultural display rules that say “Men don’t cry or look afraid” or “One cannot look angrily at his/her father and can never show sadness when disappointed”. These cultural display rules are well-learned by the children at an early age, due to this they become capable of controlling their expressions without awareness.

How To Read Microexpressions

Humans convey a lot of non-verbal information through their facial expressions. It is essential to keenly observe several areas of the face to interpret what each expression might portray. Some microexpressions are slow while others are faster. Learning to recognize and identify the meanings of every facial expression is a skill in itself. By noticing a few areas of a person, one can identify the meaning of the expressions.

The following are some of the interpretations of human facial expressions:

1. Mouth

A person’s mouth can portray more than just a smile. Humans can hide their true emotions by using their mouths.

  • Surprise can be detected by a dropped jaw.
  • An open mouth shows the emotion of fear.
  • Happiness can be identified by the raised corner of the mouth.
  • A part of the face portrays the emotion of hate or contempt.
  • Sadness can be shown by the drawn-down corners of the mouth.
  • Pursed lips show distaste.
  • A covered mouth describes that someone is trying to hide something.
  • Anxiety can be shown by lip biting.

2. Eyebrows

Eyebrows are considered to be as important as the eyes to recognize facial expressions. It portrays distinctive emotional signals.

  • Raised and arched eyebrows show surprise.
  • Anger, sadness, and fear can be detected by lowered eyebrows.
  • Sadness can be identified by the drawn-up eyebrows in the inner corner.

3. Eyes

The eyes are the most expressive part of the human face. It is considered the window of the soul. One can observe the eyes to understand others’ feelings.

  • Rapidly blinking eyes portray distress and discomfort.
  • Dilated eyes show interest and arousal.
  • If someone stares intensely, it shows anger or attention. If someone is looking away, it conveys the emotion of discomfort or distraction.

Benefits Of Reading Microexpressions

The skill of recognizing microexpressions on people’s faces provides several important benefits that include:

  • One can read and identify the underlying emotions and feelings of another person.
  • A person can observe the real-time changes of emotions during a conversation.
  • An individual can observe and identify the uncovered and hidden emotions of others, even the emotions that are unaware of.
  • One can understand other people’s perspectives and empathize with them.
  • One can understand the concept of deception 20 better than earlier.
  • Several verbal and non-verbal cues can be well understood by a person.
  • The skill may boost the communication skills and the emotional intelligence of a person.

Microexpressions In A Nutshell

Learning and understanding the microexpressions is considered to be extremely difficult as they occur for a fraction of seconds. Every person has their own way to portray their inner feelings and emotions and adapting the skill to identify each emotion is not a matter of easy task. One might need more practice if facing a lot of trouble while decoding the facial expressions.

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