Micro Expressions: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

What if there was a way to read a person's true emotional state, even if that person was trying to hide their feelings? Learn the definitions of micro and macro expressions with the use of examples of micro expressions in this lesson.

What Is a Micro Expression?

Imagine a friend tells you that she got a snake tattoo that stretches from the bottom of her neck to her waist. You are horrified, but want to conceal your true feelings so that you do not hurt your friend. Nevertheless, for a fraction of a second your mouth widens, nose crinkles, and eyes squint in a look of genuine disgust. Your face returns to a neutral facial expression and your friend never even noticed your micro expression.

There are many reasons as to why we might want to conceal our true emotions. For example, perhaps we don't want to show a job recruiter that we are nervous and under-qualified in an interview. While concealing emotions and feelings is a natural part of life, we sometimes emit micro expressions that reveal our genuine feelings.

Macro expressions

Before we venture into micro expressions, we should know about macro expressions, facial displays of emotion that last from half of a second to about 4 seconds. These emotions are clear to see on a person's face, as they have no reason or intention to hide them. Emotions expressed through macro expressions include anger, shock, sadness, happiness, and excitement.

This mans macro expression clearly shows that he is furious.
Angry man

Micro expressions

A micro expression is an involuntary facial display of one's true emotion that is much harder to see because it only lasts for a fraction of a second, sometimes as fast as 1/25th of a second. The person who has expressed a micro expression typically is not aware that they have displayed that emotion through a micro expression, and may even wish to conceal it.

Paul Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California who coined the term micro expression, conducted some studies on micro expressions and found that 80-90% of participants that observed others emotions did not pick up on the other person's micro expression. Typically only a person knowledgable about micro expressions, those that are good at catching them (or those looking for them) will be able to detect micro expressions of others.

Academic research on micro expressions report that sometimes they are so hard to notice in real time that they are better recognized with the use of high-speed cameras. Another research study noted that the training of 306 people in micro expression detection yielded improvement in their ability to detect micro expressions of others. This can have positive uses for many professionals, including CIA agents and police officers.

Examples of Micro Expressions

Learning to read micro expressions can boost ones social skills dramatically. Imagine the following scenario. Oliver tries to impress Sofia, a woman he has just met at a party. He begins to speak about how much he loves the new president, and Sofia squints her eyes for just a millisecond in response. Oliver happens to be skilled at picking up micro expressions and he reads Sofia's eye squint as a sign that she is not very fond of the new president. Oliver quickly changes the topic to regain Sofia's interest.

It's important to note that Sofia's micro expression might not have anything to do with what Oliver said. Sofia could have been thinking about the fact that she left a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. It's sometimes hard to tell what caused the micro expression when reading others.

Micro expressions can incorporate the entire face or body, or just a part of the face or body. Here are some examples of facial movements that could be incorporated into a micro expression and what emotion or desire they tend to indicate:

Micro Expressions Indicating Negative Emotions

  • Puckering lips, squinting, or blocking/touching one's eye- dislike, disinterest, disengagement, or disagreement
  • Disappearing lips- Stress
  • Eyelid flutter- discomfort
  • Closed-lip or tight-lip smile- hiding something or does not wish to speak/engage
  • Sneer- contempt, disrespect, dislike
  • Upturn of inner eyebrows- sadness
  • Wrinkled nose- disgust

Neutral Micro Expressions

  • Widened eyelids- surprise, shock
  • Lopsided smile- mixed emotions
  • Heightened eyebrow- the higher the positioning of someone's eyebrows, the more confident they are.

Micro Expressions Indicating Positive Emotions

  • Genuine smile (eyes are engaged, teeth are displayed)- happiness, interest, like

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