What are micro-expressions in psychology

Body language vs. microexpressions

Thoughtful questions often lead to thoughtful analysis, and recently a series of questions from a reader about "microexpressions" had such an effect on me. His questions made me pause and think about how the public perceives "microexpressions" and what significance they have for our overall understanding of body language and, above all, their relevance for detecting deception.

By now, most people have heard of "micro-expressions" as a result of the show Lie to me, or because the term was popularized by the media. In fact, I routinely meet people who say they have taken "microexpression" courses and are "certified" or want to become the "microexpression" experts. (It reminds me of when students wanted to be first "criminal profilers" and then "CSI agents", just like on TV, now I think they are "microexpression experts".)

That's fine, I say, but what about the rest of the body? And then I hear silence. After all, the rest of the body transmits information about thoughts, desires, fears, emotions, and intentions far more regularly. If someone airs their shirt or hides their thumbs while they are asked questions, then you should know what that means, other than that it's hot and they don't know what to do with their hands (it means: trouble, discomfort, Uncertainties) because there may not be any "micro-expressions" to help you at all.

To anchor ourselves properly, let's start with what the term "microexpressions" means or means. In 1966, while watching movies of couples in therapy, two researchers named Haggard and Isaacs discovered what they termed "micromomentary expressions." They noticed behaviors that would flash so quickly that if you slowed the movie down, they would be difficult to spot. A few years later, Paul Ekman coined the term "microexpressions" while building on that earlier work and observing the same behaviors he studied on deception. Ekman later included this in his book, Telling liesWhat You Really Should Read If You Are Into Nonverbals.

What Haggard and Isaacs, as well as others, found was that our faces often reveal hidden feelings that are intentionally hidden. This was obviously useful in identifying problems during couples therapy. Unfortunately, over time, the term "microexpressions" has included too many things; For example, one cannot distinguish between the really tiny, the small, and the larger facial distortions. There was also a mistake in distinguishing between fast and super fast behaviors, which had little to do with being "micro" or small. Finally, there was a failure to distinguish asymmetrical or, oddly enough, freezing behaviors, such as when we smile tightly at a growling dog.

As a result, it is often difficult to determine what someone is referring to since so many things have come under the heading of "microexpression", especially when he replaces "microexpressions" with plain old body language or non-verbal ones. Let's see if we can add some clarity here so that you can better understand the behavior of the face.

First, we should recognize, as David Matsumoto pointed out, that there are behaviors, gestures, or facial expressions that occur without conscious prompting that leak or reveal our true feelings or feelings. Some of these behaviors or expressions flash in front of us very quickly (1/15, 1/25 of a second), others seem to stay there too long. There are also behaviors that are difficult to observe because they are so small (e.g., twitching muscles just below the eye), while others are quite large, or as "big" as they can get the size of some small facial muscles.

It is important to observers that while these behaviors occur, we should not attach more importance to them than we should. Shows like lie to me (now canceled) gave the impression that the person was lying if you saw any of these behaviors. Nothing is further from the truth. Because as Ekman, Frank, DePaulo, Burgoon and Vrij have repeatedly told us, there is not a single behavior that indicates deception (Matsumoto et. Al. 2011, 1-4; Navarro 2008). There are indicators of stress, psychological discomfort, fear, dislike, problem or tension, but no delusion - I am sorry to say. In fact, in my experience, it is far more useful to have a "Problem detector"because that's really what we are observing. When we see the physical signs of psychological discomfort, we are really seeing our body communicating that there are" problems "; in other words, something is bothering us. The question is, what ?

Examine the face:

One way to understand facial gestures or behavior is to break them down according to what they're doing, rather than mini, micro, or macro, ignoring speed or, in some cases, lengthy, asymmetrical, or rigid presentations. The following is not an exhaustive list, but in my experience, if you focus on these five areas, it will make it easier for you to determine how others are really feeling or what they are thinking:

Facial gestures of nervousness and tension:


Squinting eyes

- lip compression

- Lips that are sucked into the mouth

Trembling lips

Trembling chin

The corners of the mouth twitch or pull strangely towards the ear very quickly

Facial gestures of dislike or disagreement:

- Puckered lips usually mean I dislike or dislike (in babies four weeks and older).

Nasal folds (nose moves up very quickly as a shortened sign of disgust)

- The top half of the lip on one side rises, as does the nose

To roll one's eyes

- eyelid flutter (usually seen when someone says something we disagree with at all)

- The eyelids close and do not seem to open again for a long time

- squinting eyes (think of Clint Eastward in a shootout)

Facial gestures to reduce stress:

There are any number of facial tics that can develop suddenly or become permanent to manage tension. Examples are:

- Uncontrollable blinking

- cheek twitches

Uncontrollable twitching of the eye

- Jaw thrusts forward

- Jaw shift to the sides

- Biting your tongue

Pulling facial hair

Repeatedly touching the nose or eyelid with a finger

Not only do these behaviors repeat themselves, they can get worse under stress and sometimes become very rapid. By the way, as I mentioned in Evidence of fraudRepetitive behaviors are calming behaviors, which is why we primarily develop nervous tics.

Asymmetrical facial gestures:

Gestures that only affect one half of the face fall into this category:

- Fake smile

- Smile with only half of your face

- Person smiles, but the eyes blink or show tension

- Asymmetry also applies to discord between what is said and what the body transmits, e.g. B. "I love you" with clenched teeth or a tight face.

Facial gestures of contempt or contempt:

- A grin (corner of the mouth on one side, dimple or pull towards the eye or ear)

Nose high, haughty demeanor

To roll one's eyes

- Look repulsively crooked

Incidentally, contempt is not a sign of deception; it is seen in both the innocent and the liar. Contempt is often seen among innocents when interviewed by people who they believe are of lower social status or who they find incompetent. They also see contemptuous looks from an occupied population towards their oppressors.


While these gestures or behaviors are useful in identifying true thoughts and feelings, they are in no way indicative of deception. They can indicate mental or physical ailments, dislikes, problems, or nervousness, but that's it. No conclusion can be drawn from this about a deception, as there is not a single behavior that indicates a deception. None.


After studying non-verbal for over 40 years, I find it smarter to understand what the whole body is communicating, not just the face or just "micro-expressions". In particular, knowing that the feet are more accurate than the face in revealing feelings and intentions and that our whole body is constantly transmitting important information (Navarro 2008). Indeed, as I write in Evidence of fraud, There are over 215 behaviors associated with mental health problems, and most of them are not facial.

If you really want to learn about body language and non-verbal communication, indulge yourself and read Desmond Morris' trilogy on non-verbal communication (Man watching, body watching, people watching). Morris looks at people with the critical eye of a scientist discovering a new species and explains why we do the things we do. He is an unparalleled authority on non-verbal communication and as a zoologist and anthropologist he will open your eyes like no other writer or expert can, with the exception of Charles Darwin, who started it all one day while he was orang- Utans in the world watched London Zoo.


Darwin, Charles. 1872. The expression of emotions in humans and animals. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Ekman, Paul. 1985. Telling Lies: Evidence of Cheating in the Market Place, Politics, and Marriage. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Haggard, E. A. and Isaacs, K.S. 1966. Micromomentary facial expressions. In Methods of Research in Psychology, L. A. Gottschalk and A. H. Auerback, eds. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

Matsumoto, David et. al. 2011. Truthfulness Assessment and Deception Detection New tools to assist investigators. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (January): 1-8.

Morris, Desmond. 1985. Body watching. New York: Crown Publishers.

Morris, Desmond. 1980. Man watching. New York: Crown Publishers.

Morris, Desmond. 2002. People watch: New York: Crown Publishers

Navarro, Joe. 2011. Evidence of fraud. Amazon Kindle.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Says. New York: Harper Collins.

Porter, S. & ten Brinke, L. (2008). Reading Between Lies: Identifying Covert and Fake Emotions in Universal Facial Expressions. Psychological Science, 19, 508- 514.

Vrij, A., Granhag, P. A. & Porter, S. 2010. Pitfalls and possibilities in recognizing non-verbal and verbal lies. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11, 89-121.