How to understand microexpressions

Understanding microexpressions: the definitive guide

Understanding the 7 microexpressions
Understanding the 7 different microexpressions

Understanding microexpressions is harder than people think. In fact, you might be surprised where some of the confusion lies, according to the results of our fun quiz on reading emotions.

Our Reading Emotions survey results show that most people have trouble understanding microexpressions, a more common problem than you may think.

While our quiz isn’t statistically accurate as we had less than 100 participants over the last few months, it does offer us a pulse on which expressions are being misinterpreted more than others. A recent study in the UK of 2,000 people found that women tend to be more perceptive than men when reading emotions, but men are better at understanding microexpressions that relate to anger and passion. The ability to read faces improves with age (until you reach 65), according to researchers.

So, how did our respondents fare?

  1. Anger

Understanding microexpressions: anger
Understand the anger microexpression

How it presents:

  • Eyebrows lowered and drawn together
  • Vertical lines between eyebrows
  • Lower lids are tensed
  • Eyes hard stare or bulging
  • Lips firmly pressed together with corners down or square shape
  • Nostrils may be flared
  • Jutting out lower jaw

What triggers the emotion

We feel anger when someone is blocking a goal or objective. Anger is useful in helping us eliminate any threat to reaching a goal.

How readers did in our survey

Readers correctly identified this microexpression 56% of the time. A very small number mistook this expression for hunger (1%) and passion (1%). The remainder attributed the expression to disgust (22%).

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

People are correctly interpreting this microexpression as one that will be directed towards them – anger is typically shown towards a person, either self or others. This is also true of disgust, where the subject will often mistake the emotion being directed towards them.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting anger

Mistaking anger as disgust can cause a more negative reaction than necessary. They might be interpreting loss of control over someone’s disgust towards them, whereas interpreting anger can arm them in diffusing the situation in a positive way.

For example, simply acknowledging someone’s perspective can demonstrate empathy and result in a positive outcome. Acknowledging doesn’t mean supporting or criticizing, simply respecting someone’s opinion and showing that you have taken it on board.

Try it next time you are tempted to get into an argument, particularly online… it has a powerful diffusing effect!

Reading strength of feeling and acknowledging allows you to negotiate strong opinions and feelings in the workplace.

  1. Fear 

Understanding microexpressions: fear
Understand the fear microexpression

How it presents:

  • Eyebrows are raised and drawn together
  • Wrinkles in the centre of the forehead, not all the way across the forehead
  • The upper eyelids are raised, but the lower eyelids are tense
  • The white of the eye is showing in the upper, but not lower, areas
  • Mouth is open with tense lips, sometimes drawn over the teeth

What triggers the emotion

We feel fear when there is the threat of harm. This expression helps us to avoid or reduce that harm.

How readers did in our survey

Readers correctly identified this microexpression two thirds (67%) of the time. The balance mistook this expression for either surprise or contempt in equal proportions.

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

While it’s common to confuse fear with surprise, given the similar ways both emotions present on the face, it is actually rare for it to be confused with contempt.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting fear

Misattributing this emotion means people could be missing danger signals. Responding with a neutral response when you really should be responding with fight or flight response can put you and others in harm’s way.

Equally, mistaking fear as contempt in an everyday work setting can lead to overly paranoid or defensive reactions, which could label you as paranoid or someone to be avoided as overly emotional, hysterical or erratic.

  1. Disgust

Understanding microexpressions: disgust
Understand the disgust microexpression

How it presents

  • Upper eyelids are raised
  • Wrinkled lower eyelids
  • The lower lip is raised with a wrinkled nose
  • Cheeks are raised

What triggers the emotion

When you smell something bad or imagine something distasteful, you make this microexpression. For example, think about spitting your saliva into a glass of water, then drinking it again!

How readers did in our survey

Readers correctly identified this microexpression 75% of the time. The remainder mistook this expression for contempt.

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

There are similarities between disgust and contempt, however the former is not directed towards a person in particular. Where contempt (or hate) is directed towards a person; disgust is a response to what a person does, not what a person is.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting disgust

Because disgust isn’t directed towards a person, misidentifying this as contempt can cause the person misidentifying to incorrectly believe they are the cause of disgust. Hence, there is a chance to personalize the reaction where in fact it isn’t necessary. You can come across as being overly sensitive and can also cause interpersonal conflict where none is needed.

  1. Happiness

Understanding microexpressions: happiness
Understand the happiness microexpression

How it presents

  • Corners of the lips are drawn back and up
  • Mouth may or may not be parted, teeth exposed
  • A wrinkle runs from outer nose to outer lip
  • Cheeks are raised
  • Lower eyelids may show wrinkles or be tense
  • Crows feet near the outside of the eyes

What triggers the emotion

You show this expression when you feel pleasure. It’s a social signal of friendliness, meaning “I am no threat to you”.

How readers did in our survey

Of all seven core emotions, this one had the highest recognition rate, with 100% of our readers getting it correct!

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

While there was no misinterpretation, there are distinctions between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ smiles which can have consequences if you cannot tell the difference.

The difference is in the eyes. A ‘real’ smile results in the muscles controlling the skin either side of the eyes pull back the skin and muscles revealing a genuine smile.

Fake smiles do not activate these muscles (called the zygomatic major).

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting happiness

Having inappropriately happy responses can label you as being insensitive, unrealistic, over-optimistic. Misinterpreting fake smiles means you may not be making realistic assessments of workplace situations or probability of success from false promises.

  1. Sadness 

Understanding microexpressions: sadness
Understand the sadness microexpression

How it presents

  • Inner corners of the eyebrows are drawn in and then up
  • The skin below eyebrow is triangulated, with the inner corner raised
  • Corner of the lips are drawn down
  • Jaw comes up
  • Lower lip pouts out

What triggers the emotion

You show this emotion when you lose a valued person or object. The emotion is a signal to call for help or to indicate you need time to recoup.

How readers did in our survey

Readers correctly identified this microexpression 56% of the time. They mistook this expression for contempt (22%) or disgust (22%). This is the hardest microexpression to fake!

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

It’s often hard to understand the cause of a person’s sadness; it can be longer lasting than most emotions. One factor in being unable to identify sadness could be an unwillingness to see sadness – most people don’t like feeling sadness, as it’s often seen as an undesirable emotion in today’s ‘feel good’ society.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting sadness

By not correctly seeing sadness, people may be viewed as lacking empathy and labeled as insensitive, callous, unfeeling or aloof.

  1. Surprise

Understanding microexpressions: surprise
Understand the surprise microexpression

How it presents

  • The eyebrows are raised
  • The skin below the eyebrows is stretched
  • Horizontal wrinkles run across the entire forehead
  • Eyelids are open with the white of the eye showing above and below
  • Jaw drops open and teeth are parted but there is no tension or stretching of the mouth

What triggers the emotion

Surprise manifests upon a sudden, unexpected movement. The emotion is useful as it focuses attention.

How readers did in our survey

Readers correctly identified this microexpression 89% of the time. The rest of our readers mistook this expression for fear.

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

This emotion is often confused with fear due to it having common facial responses to being startled, which is a purely physical response, rather than an emotional one.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting surprise

Fear is often seen as a negative emotion, which could lead to misunderstandings in the perception of that person, in that they can seem to be defensive and fearful. This may affect your viewpoint of them as a reliable person to have “in a crisis”, and could lead to negative interpersonal dealings with them unnecessarily.

  1. Contempt / hate

Understanding microexpressions: contempt
Understand the contempt microexpression

How it presents

  • Typified by one side of the mouth raised (sneering)

What triggers the emotion

This emotion is stirred by witnessing an immoral action or an action one disapproves of. It is used to assert one’s own superiority about who a person is or what they have done.

How readers did in our survey

The survey suggests there is some confusion with anger (6%) with 89% getting the emotion right, and 5% mistaking it for disgust.

This indicates a common conclusion drawn from extensive research that shows there is a lot of confusion and overlap in peoples’ minds between contempt and disgust.

Technically, the emotion of contempt is the emotional response to people or actions of people, whereas disgust is an emotion triggered by a nasty smell or taste.

Possible reasons for misinterpretation

The confusion between contempt and disgust can happen when the person perceiving the emotion or microexpression has issues with being judged personally. The emotion is useful for indicating social cohesion and marking acceptable social behaviours.

Understanding microexpressions: the consequences of misinterpreting contempt/hate

By mistaking contempt for disgust, you could be missing information that indicates your behaviour in certain situations is considered inappropriate. For example, if you are gossiping or playing office politics, you could be on the receiving end of contemptuous expressions. By being alert to someone showing those emotions, you can either correct your behaviour or correct that person’s understanding of them if you feel it reflects unfairly on something you have said or done.

Why should you care about understanding microexpressions?

Knowing how to decode a face is like having a superpower.

The ability to understand microexpressions is a critical communication skill and an essential part of understanding nonverbal behaviour – not just for understanding colleagues within the workplace, but also as a social skill in everyday life.

What is a microexpression?

A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that crosses peoples’ faces that betray the emotion they are feeling. Unlike regular prolonged facial expressions, it’s almost impossible to fake a microexpression.

There are seven universal microexpressions: anger, happiness, fear, disgust, surprise, and contempt. They are super fast (occurring up to 1/25ths of a second) and demonstrate the true instinctual emotion that person is feeling when reacting to an event.

If you struggle with reading these helpful cues, you might be someone who struggles with most interactions – for example, navigating office politics, responding to gossip (or being the victim of gossip), influencing others particularly those in power. You may have been called “naïve” or someone who falls for others’ manipulations.

You may have heard of the expression “having a poker face”. Those that win the game of poker will see and understand the subtle “tells” of someone who is happy, surprised or angry. These ‘tells’ can help give some a natural advantage to others. It can not only help you win in games but in life itself.

Tips for better understanding microexpressions

By learning people skills you will be better equipped to “catch the vibes” of a room. It’s about developing social intelligence or the ability to recognise other people’s emotions—and to use this information to navigate relationships.

But even if you think that you are fairly good at dealing with people, social competence is something you can—and should—continue to cultivate throughout your life.

Emotion has a function. Misattributing responses will then mean your own responses are inappropriate. It is the cornerstone of good communication.

  1. Watch your own emotions – the danger is that you respond defensively and send the wrong signals.
  2. Try to create a baseline of emotions by ensuring yours are calmed, before trying to read those of others.
  3. Practice microexpressions in the mirror to better recognize them in others.
  4. Look for workshops or seminars, or work with a professional behavioural expert to identify which emotions you are consistently misunderstanding, and why.

By copying the expressions in the mirror you will find you begin to experience the emotion yourself!

You will also find that if you make the facial expression, you also begin to feel the emotion yourself! Emotions not only cause facial expressions, facial expressions also cause emotions.

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