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Techniques > Using Body Language > Micro-expressions

Description | Detecting | Discussion | See also



Micro-expressions are fleeting facial expressions that betray underlying emotions that the person may be trying to suppress.

They mostly happen around the eyes and mouth, and are very brief, typically lasting only between 1/25 and 1/15 of a second.

While micro-expressions are often facial, they can also appear in the body, for example in small movements of the hand and twitches of the legs.

Detecting micro-expressions

Micro-expressions happen quickly, but they can be detected. Once you know that they happen and are concerned that somebody may be lying or suppressing emotions, just watch carefully for them. This is not that easy as they are very brief. You may miss several, but if you can ask a pointed question and then watch carefully, the micro-expression may be seen.

Videoing the person can help for later analysis, although of course this is not always possible. Another way is to have another person involved who watches more carefully while you ask questions and manage the conversation.

Also notice your own gut reactions to people. If they make you feel uncomfortable then perhaps you are unconsciously noticing the micro-expressions. When this happens, ask them questions about which they will probably lie and watch their face intently for quick 'twitches'.

An easy way of practicing identification of micro-expressions is to watch television or online videos of live interviews. Politicians are always interesting as they are often motivated not to tell the whole truth. Reality and game shows also invoke strong emotions and are useful learning material.

Particular signs of emotions may be indicated as in the table below. These are usually quick and attenuated forms of the normal expression of the emotion.


Emotion Micro-expression
Happiness Corners of lips turned up. Slightly raised cheeks. Crows feet at side of eyes.
Sadness Corners of lips turned down. Eyebrows slanted out, pulled together and raised in middle of forehead.
Anger Lips pressed together. Corners of lips flat or turned down. Eyebrows slanted in, lowered in middle of forehead. Widened eyes (brief stare).
Fear Widened mouth, slightly open. Wider eyes with raised eyebrows.
Contempt One side of lips raised. Head slightly back.
Disgust Raised upper lip. Wrinkled nose.
Surprise Opened mouth. Raised eyebrows. Widened eyes.



Initially discovered by Haggard, and Isaacs (1966), micro-expressions have been significantly explored and communicated by Paul Ekman, the eminent psychologist who specializes in facial expression of emotions.

He noted that micro-expression are... brief that they are barely perceptible to the untrained observer. Micro displays may be fragments of a squelched, neutralized or masked display. Micro displays may also show the full muscular movements associated with macro affect display, but may be greatly reduced in time.
  -- Ekman and Friesen (1969)

They found that by slowing down videos of people talking deceptively, that a very short flash of another emotion would appear, such as a momentary downturn of the corners of the mouth that indicate unconscious self-disgust at lying.

See also

Lying, Emotional body language, Smiling, Emotions


Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1969). Nonverbal leakage and clues to deception. Psychiatry, 32. 88–105.

Ekman, P. (2001). Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Marriage, and Politics, 3rd edn. W.W. Norton: New York.

Haggard, E.A. and Isaacs, K.S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L.A. Gottschalk and A.H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


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