Universal Basic Microexpressions?

As a follower of this blog, you are probably pretty aware of universal emotions, but how do these relate to microexpressions?

Some psychologists see microexpressions as undermining the case for basic emotions, but 2014 research conducted by Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto and Dr. Hyisung C. Hwang works to refute this misconception. By generating images showcasing subtle variations of basic emotions, they were able to demonstrate that study participants could consistently identify them as a given basic emotion.

This blog has discussed the notion of universal basic emotions at length, but this study asked whether more subtle facial expressions, such as microexpressions, are also reducible to basic emotional expressions or can showcase other distinctive expressions.

Such an investigation needed a precise definition of microexpressions as they relate to prototypical, universal expressions. While most of you know that a microexpression is a type of subtle expression, the study authors defined them as “low-intensity versions of full-face” expressions or as presenting the expression only in certain parts of the face, like the eyes, nose, or mouth.

In order to test this phenomenon, they derived certain facial features from universal expressions which were considered crucial to the recognition of that emotion. Then, they took faces that demonstrated basic emotions and modified them to only show some of those features.

These images were then displayed to a series of university students who were asked to examine images of those emotions which alternated between a face giving a neutral expression, a quick, one second image of that face with a subtle emotion, and then the neutral expression again. Participants were asked to identify the emotion being displayed.

Perhaps surprisingly, they found that the participants were pretty accurate in identifying the expressions, with an average 59 percent success rate across each emotion! While this may make you think that reading microexpressions is just something easy that everyone can do, this conclusion would misrepresent Dr. Matsumoto’s and Dr. Hwang’s findings.

Many of these images were derived as direct correlates of the base emotion, but some images were overladen with different subtle expressions that either didn’t correlate with an emotion or correlated with many. Where these were present, judgments became predictably less accurate.

However, there are still two major takeaways from this study. First, we can naturally identify basic emotions even at the subtle level, supporting the existence of certain universal emotional expressions. Second, we all have the ability to read microexpressions, but that this can be quite difficult.

At times where an individual is actively concealing their emotion, for instance, it will be very tricky to read, but that’s part of the reason to learn more about this subject, either through similar blog posts or through Humintell’s training programs!

Basic Emotions and Cultural Differences

Despite the universal nature of many expressions, it is pretty clear that cultural differences exist, but why?

It certainly would be simplistic to think that all emotional expressions are the exact same around the world, despite the existence of basic emotional expressions across cultures. In fact, a major 2015 study sought to trace the development of different expressions based on historical and cultural trends. This study found that historical migration patterns were powerful explanatory factors for cultural attitudes to emotional expressions.

We have previously written on the evolutionary basis of basic emotions as theorized by Charles Darwin, himself. Our fundamental way of interacting with the world helped to develop certain connections between expression and emotion, such as the narrowing of eyes when perceiving something disgusting.

This has led a team of scholars, including Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto, to track the historical migration patterns in different cultures as explanations for differing emotional expressions.

Essentially, they categorized numerous nations based on the extent to which the current population of each country descends from either a variety or a small number of “source countries.”

They found that diverse source populations, which they termed “historical heterogeneity,” accounted for variations in norms of emotional expressivity. For instance, historically diverse nations like Canada saw more varied expressions and an increased reliance on nonverbal behavior to convey individual differences.

On the other hand, more homogenous nations, like Pakistan or Austria, observed more predefined practices for guiding emotional expectations. Based on these norms, rules of etiquette and language use allowed for more predictable emotional expressions.

The study authors also sought to more specifically trace back the development of the use of smiles. While a smile of joy is one of the basic emotions, the particular expression of the smile is employed in diverse ways, such as to provide an emotional reward, maintain social bonds, or negotiate status.

After studying the use of smiles in homogenous nations, such as Japan, they concluded that smiling was rarely used to negotiate status given fixed hierarchies in those nations. Instead, it often pointed out transgressions or designated efforts to maintain existing statuses.

In contrast, heterogenous nations saw less predictable social hierarchies and structures, so smiles were often used to clarify positive intentions, such as the desire to share resources.

This all underscores what we told you last week about how better reading people can help facilitate cross-cultural communication. The study authors emphasized the importance of this research in promoting human interaction given the vast cross-cultural contact we experience in a globalized society.

While it can be overwhelming to try to keep both the universality of expressions and the different circumstances in which these emotions are applied straight, Humintell is here to help. Try checking out some past blogs for more information! Or even sign up for our cross-cultural training program!

Why Try to Read Others?

At Humintell, we certainly talk a lot about reading other people’s emotions, but why is this such a big deal?

One obvious answer is that it is just really fascinating psychology, but there are also relevant and practical reasons to improve your ability to read microexpressions and other nonverbal cues. Not only are they particularly useful during law enforcement interrogations or cross-cultural interactions, but the ability to read others is useful in almost any interpersonal setting.

But first, what exactly is a microexpression? As Humintell’s Director, Dr. David Matsumoto, explains, “Microexpressions are unconscious, extremely quick, sometimes full-face expressions of an emotion. And sometimes they’re partial and very subtle expressions of emotion.”

Often, these microexpressions signify one of the seven basic emotions, but the majority of people either does not see any expression change or cannot understand the brief facial tick they see. Part of this is due to the incredibly brief nature of microexpressions, which can pass over a face as quickly as one-fifteenth of a second.

This means, Dr. Matsumoto points out, that freeze frame shots of individuals exhibiting microexpressions are not particularly subtle, but instead “if you take a freeze frame on it on a video, you’ll see that a lot of times there’s a big facial expression that is very clear about what the person’s mental state is.”

Reading other people’s emotions is not limited to microexpressions, however, as gestures and other types of nonverbal behavior are also telling signs of subtle or hidden emotional states. Dr. Matsumoto divides gestures into “speech illustrators” and “emblems.” The former, speech illustrators, are everyday animated gestures that many people use to emphasize or complement their speech.

Speech illustrators tend to be used by people from every culture, but they do differ in specifics. Emblems, on the other hand, are culturally specific gestures that refer to specific phrases, like a thumbs up.

The ability to read microexpressions is incredibly helpful in law enforcement or national security-related settings, where an interviewee may actively be concealing information. Nonverbal behavior analysis can help us “understand other people’s true feelings, their thoughts, their motivations, their personalities or their intentions.”

Yet, as Dr. Matsumoto points out, the application of emotional detection is “very clear for anybody whose job it is to be able to get that kind of additional insight.” It is not limited to law enforcement professionals but can be helpful to psychotherapists, sales professionals, lawyers, doctors, etc.

Similarly, as the cultural dependency of different gestures alluded to, the ability to understand nonverbal behavior can help us understand exactly what a person is trying to say. Knowing specific gestures can help, but also given the universality of basic emotional expressions, happiness, anger, or fear all present themselves similarly across the world.

Stay tuned with Humintell for more information on the importance of reading other people’s emotions, but in the meantime, check out our training packages here and here.

Copyright © Humintell 2009-2017