A microexpression is a brief involuntary expression of emotion.  They usually occur when an individual experiences a strong emotion but tries to conceal his/her feelings.  They may also occur because a person experiences multiple emotions in rapid succession.  Unlike normal facial expressions, it is difficult to voluntary produce or neutralize microexpressions.  They can express any of the seven emotions universally expressed in the face:  disgust, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and contempt.  They can occur as fast as 1/15th to 1/30th of a second.

The History:

Microexpressions were first discovered by Haggard and Isaacs (1966).  In their study, Haggard and Isaacs outlined how they discovered these “micromomentary” expressions while scanning motion picture films of psychotherapy hours, searching for indications of non-verbal communication between patient and therapist.

At around the same time, Condon and Ogston (1967) pioneered the study of interactions at the fraction-of-a-second level.  In Condon’s famous research project, he scrutinized a four-and-a-half hour film segment frame by frame, where each frame represented 1/25th of a second.  After studying this film segment for a year and a half, he discerned interactional micromovements, such as the wife moving her shoulder exactly as the husband’s hands came up, which combined yielded microrhythms.  Condon’s work, however, did not focus on facial expressions.

Subsequently, Ekman and Friesen (1969, 1974) included the concept of microexpression recognition in their studies of deception.  The results of this work were reported in the book Telling Lies (Ekman, 1985), and were popularized in the mass media through the television series Lie To Me.  They also play a central role in Robert Ludlum’s posthumously published The Ambler Warning, in which the central character, Harrison Ambler, is an intelligence agent who is able to see them [microexpressions].  Similarly, one of the main characters in Alastair Reynolds’ science fiction novel Absolution Gap, Aura, can easily read microexpressons.  On Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Detective Robert Goren was adept in detecting microexpressions.

Although the existence of microexpressons was reported in the 1960’s, the first report published in a peer-reviewed, scientific article validating their existence was Porter and ten Brinke (2008).  And, the first report published in a peer-reviewed, scientific article about individual microexpression recognition skills was Matsumoto et  al.’s (2000).

Some studies have indicated that the ability to read microexpressions is indeed related to the ability to detect deception; ironically, the most recent studies suggest that the ability to read subtle expressions (expressions of low intensity), not microexpressions, are better related to the ability to detect deceit.

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References Cited:

Condon, W., S,, & Ogston, W. D. (1967). A segmentation of behavior. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 5, 221-235.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding.     Semiotica, 1, 49-98.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1974). Nonverbal behavior and psychopathology. In R. J. Friedman & M. Katz (Eds.), The psychology of depression: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 3-31). Washington, D. C.: Winston and Sons.

Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Matsumoto, D., LeRoux, J. A., Wilson-Cohn, C., Raroque, J., Kooken, K., Ekman, P., . . . Goh, A. (2000). A new test to measure emotion recognition ability: Matsumoto and Ekman’s Japanese and Caucasian Brief Affect Recognition Test (JACBART). Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24(3), 179-209.

Porter, S., & ten Brinke, L. (2008). Reading between the lies: Identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expressions. Psychological Science, 19(5), 508-514.

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