Updated: Aug 25
Thoughtful questions often prompt thoughtful analysis and recently a series of questions from a reader regarding "micro-expressions" had such an effect on me. His questions made me stop and think about how the public perceives "micro expressions" and their significance in our overall understanding of body language, and more importantly, their relevance in detecting deception.
By now most people have heard of "micro-expressions" as a result of the show Lie to Me, or because the term has been popularized by the media. In fact, I routinely run into people who say they have taken courses on "micro-expressions" and have been "certified" or who want to become experts on "micro-expressions." (It reminds me of when students first wanted to be "criminal profilers" and then they wanted to be "CSI agents," just like on TV, now I guess it is "micro-expression experts") That's fine I say, but what about the rest of the body? And that is when I hear silence. After all, the rest of the body is transmitting information about thoughts, desires, fears, emotions, and intentions with far more regularity. If someone ventilates their shirt or hides their thumbs while being asked questions, you should know what that means beyond it's hot and they don't know what to do with their hands (it means: issues, discomfort, insecurities) because there may be no "micro-expressions" to help you at all.
In order to properly anchor us, let's start with what the term "micro-expressions" means or has come to mean. In 1966 two researchers by the name of Haggard and Isaacs discovered, while looking at films of couples in therapy, what they described as "micromomentary expressions." They noted behaviors that would flash by so quickly they were difficult to see except by slowing the film down. A few years later, building on this earlier work and observing these same behaviors, Paul Ekman coined the term "micro expressions" while he was studying deception. Ekman later incorporated this into his book, "Telling Lies," which you really should read if you care about nonverbals.
What Haggard and Isaacs, as well as others, found was that our faces often reveal hidden sentiments that are being intentionally concealed. This was obviously useful in detecting issues during couples' therapy. Unfortunately, over time the term "micro expressions" grew to include too many things; failing for instance to differentiate between the truly miniscule, the small, and the larger facial distortions. There was also a failure to differentiate between the behaviors that were fast and those which were super-fast, but which had little to do with being "micro" or small. Lastly there was a failure to differentiate behaviors that are asymmetrical or that oddly freeze in place such as when we hold a tense smile at a snarling dog.
Consequently, because so many things have been lumped under the appellation "micro-expression" it is often difficult to determine what someone means, especially when they substitute "micro-expressions" for plain old body language or nonverbals. So let's see if we can add some clarity here to help you better understand behaviors of the face, which are often lumped under the term "micro-expressions" or worse they are ignored completely.
First we should recognize, as David Matsumoto has pointed out, that there are behaviors, gestures, or expressions of the face that do occur without conscious prompting which leak or reveal our true feelings or sentiments. Some of these behaviors or expressions flash before us very quickly (1/15, 1/25 of a second) and others loiter there seemingly too long. Also there are behaviors that are difficult to observe because they are so tiny (twitching muscles just under the eye for example) while others are quite large or as "large" as they can be given the size of some small facial muscles.
What is important for observers is that while these behaviors do occur, we must not attach more meaning to them than we should. Shows such as Lie to Me (now cancelled) made it seem that if you saw one of these behaviors then the person is lying. Nothing could be further from the truth. For as Ekman, Frank, DePaulo, Burgoon, and Vrij have repeatedly told us, there is no single behavior indicative of deception (Matsumoto, et. al. 2011, 1-4; Navarro 2008). There are indicators of stress, psychological discomfort, anxiety, dislike, issues, or tension, but not deception - I'm sorry to say. In fact, rather than focus on deception, in my experience, it is far more useful to become an "Issue Detector" because that is really what we are observing. When we see the physical displays of psychological discomfort, we are really seeing our bodies communicating there are "issues"; in other words something is bothering us, the questions is what?
Examining the Face:
One way to understand facial gestures or behaviors is to divide them up by what they do, not whether they are mini, micro, or macro which does not take into account speed or in some cases lengthy, asymmetrical, or rigid presentations. The following is not a comprehensive list but if you focus on these five areas you will find it easier, in my experience, to identify how others truly feel or what they think:
Facial Gestures of Nervousness and Tension:
Lips that are sucked into the mouth
Corners of mouth twitching or pulling oddly toward the ear very quickly
Facial Gestures of Dislike or Disagreement:
Pursed lips usually mean I don't like or I disagree (seen in babies as young as four weeks)
Nose crinkle (nose moves very quickly up as a shortened sign of disgust)
Upper half of lip on one side rises as does nose
Rolling of the eyes
Eyelid flutter (usually seen when someone says something we strongly disagree with)
Eyelids close fail to reopen for what seems a long time
Squinting of the eyes (think of Clint Eastward in a shootout)
Facial Gestures to Relieve Stress:
There are any number of facial ticks which may suddenly develop or which become permanent to deal with tension. Examples are:
Uncontrollable twitching of the eye
Jaw thrusts forward
Jaw displacement to the sides
Pulling of facial hair
Repetitive touching of the nose or eyelid with a finger
These behaviors are not only repetitive, they may increase in severity under stress and at times become very fast. Incidentally, as I mentioned in Clues to Deceit, repetitive behaviors are soothing behaviors, which is why we develop nervous ticks in the first place. The brain benefits from the repetitive muscular tick as a form of pacification; however, it can become pathological.
Asymmetrical Facial Gestures:
Gestures that involve only one half of the face fall into this category:
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Smile involving only half the face
Person smiles but the eyes squint or show tension
Asymmetry also applies to discord between what is said with what the body is transmitting, such as saying, "I love you" with clenched teeth or a tense face.
Facial gestures of Contempt or Disdain:
A smirk (corner of mouth tightens on one side, dimples, or pulls toward eye or ear)
Nose high haughty attitude
Rolling of the eyes
Looking dismissively askance
Contempt, incidentally, is not a sign of deception, it is seen in both the innocent as well as the liar. Contempt is often seen among the innocent when interviewed by those they deem to be of lower social status or whom they perceive as incompetent. You also see looks of contempt on the part of an occupied population toward their oppressors.
While these gestures or behaviors are useful in discerning true thoughts and feelings, they are in no way indicative of deception. They may indicate psychological or physical discomfort, dislike, issues, or nervousness, but that is it. No inference of deception can be drawn from these for there is no single behavior indicative of deception. None.
After studying nonverbals for over 40 years, I think it is wiser to understand what all of the body communicates, not just the face, or just "micro-expressions." Especially knowing that the feet are more accurate than the face in revealing sentiments and intentions and that all of our body is constantly transmitting vital information (Navarro 2008). In fact, as I note in Clues to Deceit there are over 215 behaviors associated with psychological discomfort and most of those are not in the face.
If you truly want to learn about body language and nonverbal communications and go beyond the tripe usually served on television, give yourself a treat and read Desmond Morris' trilogy on nonverbals (Manwatching, Bodywatching, Peoplewatching). Morris looks at humans with the critical eye of a scientist discovering a new species and explains why we do the things we do. He is an authority without equal when it comes to nonverbal communications and as a zoologist and anthropologist, will open your eyes as no other author or expert can, with perhaps the exception of Charles Darwin, who started it all one day while watching orangutans in the London zoo.
Darwin, Charles. 1872. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.
Ekman, Paul. 1985. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, 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. Evaluating Truthfulness and Detecting Deception New Tools to Aid Investigators. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, (January):1-8.
Morris, Desmond. 1985. Bodywatching. New York: Crown Publishers.
Morris, Desmond. 1980. Manwatching. New York: Crown Publishers.
Morris, Desmond. 2002. Peoplewatching: New York: Crown Publishers
Navarro, Joe. 2011. Clues to Deceit. Amazon Kindle.
Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.
Porter, S., & ten Brinke, L. (2008). Reading between the lies: Identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expressions. Psychological Science, 19, 508-514.
Vrij, A., Granhag, P. A., & Porter, S. 2010. Pitfalls and opportunities in nonverbal and verbal lie detection. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 11, 89-121.