The Psychology of Micro Expressions

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What are Micro Expressions?

Micro expressions are defined as “extremely brief facial expressions” lasting between only one fifteenth and one twentieth of a second. All humans exhibit these miniscule flashes of emotions whether they are aware of it or not and, try as you might, they are extremely difficult to conceal. The concept of being able to ‘read someone’s mind’ is still futuristic, but detecting micro expressions might well be the next best thing.


Micro expressions became the subject of psychological interest when Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs sought to observe non-verbal communication between therapist during their seminal 1966 study. They watched video recordings of psychotherapy sessions and discovered that micro expressions occurred either when patients subconsciously hid their feelings from themselves (known as repression), or when they deliberately tried to conceal their feelings from others (known as suppression). Though these reactions are nearly impossible to hide or control, it is possible for us to identify them on others. In fact, the ability to spot these micro expressions is what makes Tim Roth’s character in Lie to Me so good at his job of detecting deception.


Micro expressions appear most commonly in people when they are under pressure, though can present themselves during a wide range of emotional responses. In 1967, Paul Ekman (a pioneer in the study of emotions and facial expressions) travelled to Papua New Guinea and found that these micro expressions occurred in exactly the same way in the people of the preliterate Fore tribesmen as they did in the people of the United States. This meant that these expressions aren’t learned, rather they are biologically encoded. With the help of Wallace Friesen, Paul Ekman identified seven emotions as having universal signals: fear, contempt, disgust, surprise, anger, sadness and happiness.


So how do we recognise and study micro expressions? Their sheer briefness makes them very hard to capture with photography, so William Condon (and more recently John Gottman) decided instead to film participants during their research. They then studied the footage frame by frame, noting minor changes in appearance as the micro expressions happened. They also identified the distinct facial characteristics for each emotion. Gottman later used this method to study interactions between couples. He found that, with a considerable deal of accuracy, he was able to predict how long a couple’s relationship would last based on the micro expressions each couple revealed during their interaction with each other.


Clearly, the ability to detect micro expressions has profound implications with regards to everything from interviewing criminal suspects to bluffing in a game of poker. For example, the study of micro expressions could change the nature of mental health care. In 1967 Ekman began to study deception; analysing clinical cases in which patients attempted to hide suicidal intent by claiming they were not depressed. When these films were later examined in slow motion, the micro expressions that were revealed indicated strong feelings of negativity that the patient was attempting to hide. Research by Helen Riess has shown that physicians who were better at recognizing micro expressions in their patients were – very unsurprisingly – rated as more empathetic by their patients.


Even in everyday life, the ability to recognise micro expressions could greatly benefit us at home and at work. It could enable more intimate and understanding relationships with our loved ones and allow us to perform better in a team. In short, it could give us a greater emotional intelligence. We’ll begin to notice when our loved ones, colleagues or customers are feeling concerned or frustrated – perhaps even before they know it themselves. Beyond the realm of psychology and human relationships, micro expressions have major implications in other fields – marketing research, for instance.


Companies such as Emotient are wising up to the power of micro expressions for that exact reason. By performing facial analysis, their software is able to detect how people react to advertisements. They can tell, for example, which demographics respond most favourably to certain types of marketing. Perhaps eventually, advertisements will be tailored toward an individual consumer based on micro expressions. That the company has recently been purchased by Apple is a telling display of the pertinence, power and importance of micro expressions.


Perhaps the most significant development would be in law enforcement. It’s an oversimplification to suggest that a distinct micro expression could indicate definite guilt, or that a particular muscle twitch means that a suspect is lying. David Matsumoto explains that a micro expression can simply suggest there is more to a story than is being told, and that what is happening on a person’s face might not match the story they’re telling. Ekman has worked to train law enforcement in micro expression recognition, and hopes to develop his work to point where even malicious intent can be detected before an act of violence takes place.




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