We’ve all had those situations where our BS radar is on full alert when talking to someone we just met. They’re telling us about something that seems so fantastical it sounds like a load of baloney. Regardless of the theme of their story, something doesn’t seem right, and you’re halfway to calling them out on this nonsense, but you don’t want to seem like a douchebag.

So, how can you tell if someone is lying to you? We’ll look at micro expressions in this second part of the series. What are micro-expressions, and how can they help you decipher if someone’s lying to you or telling the truth? Are micro expressions even a useful tool in determining deceptive behavior?

Some experts state micro expressions offer another useful tactic in assessing behavior, while others think it’s a waste of time. Let’s unpack everything you need to know about this behavioral trait and how it gives way to our intentions, feelings, and thoughts.


What Are Micro Expressions?

A micro expression is an involuntary facial movement occurring in a fraction of a second. It happens so fast that you’ll miss it unless you’re paying close attention to the person’s face. Experts believe these micro expressions reflect your true emotional state or reaction to an exterior stimulus, regardless of your controlled facial expressions.

We can’t control the micro expressions we make. So, by identifying them, we have a powerful means of determining what a person is feeling or thinking in response to what we say or do. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of someone asking us if we’re okay after they say something bad to us, and we reply by saying we’re alright when we really feel like screaming in their face.

In the moments before we brush off their question and reply in a cool, calm, and relaxed manner, our micro expressions will convey anger or disappointment at them, just for a fraction of a second. While the other person isn’t consciously aware of it, if they were staring at our face when they made the statement, their subconscious mind will register the micro expression and know they did something wrong.

This “emotional leakage” of micro expressions can be totally contrary to what our general facial expression portrays in the moments after the micro expression. By understanding how to recognize micro expressions, we have a powerful tool at our disposal to uncover what a person really thinks about something.

Micro expressions could be useful in situations where we’re trying to determine deceptive behavior in others. They act as a “tell,” removing the mask the other person tries to hide behind. It takes a trained eye to recognize micro expressions. They happen in a fraction of a second, and if you’re not consciously looking for them, you’ll miss them.


Do Micro Expressions Convey Emotional States?

Hundreds of studies conducted around the globe show people have universal facial responses expressing their emotions. The studies show consistent results displaying seven universal facial expressions for our feelings. These expressions are reflexive, innate, emotional reactions to external stimuli in our life experiences.

We all have an innate understanding of how to recognize emotional states in others just by looking at their facial experience. Right now, try to imagine someone that’s happy. It is easy to imagine their face in this emotional state. Similarly, try to imagine the same person when they look angry. Once again, it’s easy and natural to formulate this image in your mind.

However, people also have the ability to mimic false facial expressions to cover up what they’re really feeling. For instance, how often have you “put on a happy face” despite feeling angry or sad? Our facial expressions give away our true emotional state, and they also have the power to change our emotional state.

For instance, think about when you’re feeling sad. If a friend tells you to smile and forces you into that expression, don’t you suddenly feel a little better? Sure, you’re not jumping over the moon with excitement, but the act of trying to crack a smile lifts the bad emotional state, helping you out of that dark place.

When you initially respond to an external stimulus and then control your response, in the moments between the reaction and control, you emit a micro expression giving away how you truly feel. This process happens so fast that it’s impossible for other people to pick up; if they’re not looking directly at you, they’re likely to miss it.

With enough practice, it’s possible to learn these micro expressions and detects them in other people if you’re paying attention at the right time.


Micro Expressions and How They Represent Emotional Awareness

Unlike gestures or verbal communication, facial expressions are part of a universally recognized behavioral signaling system. These emotional signals reflect the fluctuation in our mental state on a moment-to-moment basis.

The face gives us a window into the emotional headspace of other people. Whether you’re Caucasian, Asian, African, English, or Spanish, we all recognize the expressions of happiness, anger, sadness, and all the others encompassing the seven emotional expressions in others.

For instance, if you’re standing on a subway platform, and someone of a different ethnicity is staring at you with a grimace on their face, you don’t need to ask them what they’re thinking. They don’t have to say a word for you to get 100% certainty in what they are thinking about you at that moment.

This form of nonverbal communication is deeply embedded in our psyche as children. Long before we understand language as infants, we learn to recognize the expressions on our parent’s faces, which significantly impact how we feel.

For instance, a newborn might be crying, but if you look at them with surprise and happiness and make a silly sound, it’s enough to nap them out of their emotional state and get them to start giggling.


What are the Seven Universal Facial Expressions?

There are seven universal facial expressions corresponding to our emotional state.

  • Surprise.
  • Joy.
  • Anger.
  • Sadness.
  • Fear.
  • Disgust.
  • Contempt.

Each facial expression engages the muscular system in the face to convey our emotional state. Interestingly, joy is the easiest to recognize, and sadness is the most challenging to fake. Some people have a hard time differentiating between expressions of fear and surprise.


Can People Train to Read Facial Micro Expressions?

A scientific study of micro expressions by David Matsumoto provides evidence suggesting we have the ability to train ourselves to recognize micro expressions in others. With the right instruction and practice, anyone can learn how to identify and interpret micro expressions.

Training includes familiarizing yourself with the physical characteristics of facial expressions using still images and descriptions. You move on to videos where you must identify the micro expression in real-time. By including classes to understand body language, you fast-track your study and understanding of how to recognize micro expressions.


What are the Benefits of Reading Facial Micro Expressions?

Law enforcement officers and other professionals involved in security, guarding, and psychology often receive training to recognize micro expressions in others. Understanding how to identify these tells them they have a tool to help them avoid potentially dangerous facades put on by other people they engage with in real-world scenarios.

Micro expressions can assist with differentiating lies from truths regarding future malicious intent. By learning these skills, individuals can identify a potential security threat. For instance, a thief registers a micro expression of fear as they walk out of a store with stolen merchandise. Or a terrorist that flashes surprise when a law enforcement officer comes into their path when they walk through airport security.

Learning micro expressions can also be useful in polygraph examinations and other forms of interrogation to uncover deceptive behavior in examinees. The subject might flash a micro expression giving away their true intentions and thoughts before they answer deceptively.


Micro Expressions and Deception Detection

When a person tries to conceal their emotions, a micro expression precedes the final emotional state of their face. The leaking micro expression may limit itself to one portion of the face in a subtle or “mini” expression or my present as a quick flash across the entire face.

Micro expressions typically occur in 1/25th of a second, so it’s easy for people to miss them. However, the subconscious mind is a powerful tool, and with the right training, you can identify micro expressions, even though they happen so quickly.


Micro Expressions – The Gestural Slip

Sometimes, micro expressions don’t always occur on the face. They can take the form of slight gestures, as is the “gestural slip.” The person might slightly raise their left or right shoulder when they speak, indicating a fragment of a full gesture.

This gestural slip occurs due to feelings of fear or helplessness when facing tough questions, such as those asked in a polygraph exam. Like micro expressions, the person making the gestural slip is entirely unaware of their actions.

Gestural slips can also occur with body language indicating the opposite of what the person is saying. For instance, they might nod their head in the affirmative while profusely denying an accusation.


Micro Expressions – Microfear

One of the most common facial micro expressions produced in stressful situations, such as polygraph exams, is “microfear.” Typically, the microfear expression involves the subject making an unconscious horizontal stretching of their lips in an effort to conceal their fearfulness at the question.

In this case, the microfear expression gives the impression of subdued feelings below the surface, making the subject uncomfortable. It’s common for microfear expressions to come in combination with gestural slips, like the half-shoulder shrug. Microfear expressions can also involve slight movements in the corners of the mouth before telling a lie.


Micro Expressions – ‘Unilateral’ Contempt

Unilateral contempt involves raising and tightening the corners of the mouth to indicate emotions of moral superiority or arrogance. It’s classified as “unilateral” because contempt is the only emotion corresponding to a facial expression on one side of the face.

Emotions like surprise, anger, fear, happiness, disgust, and sadness appear on both sides of the face in a “bilateral” manner. However, it’s also important to note that the micro-expressions of unilateral contempt, microfear, and gestural slips are insufficient to confirm if a person is lying.

However, they may prove useful in polygraph exams. Combined with other deception identification techniques, they may strengthen the case for deception if the examiner suspects the examinee of lying in a polygraph test, for example.


Can Micro Expressions Uncover Deception?

Every polygraph examiner and law enforcement official would welcome a foolproof method of identifying deception in others. However, the reality is there is no certain method for detecting deceptive behavior.

Despite what we see on TV shows like Fox network’s “Lie to Me,” where Tim Roth plays an expert in reading micro expressions, it’s impossible to use them alone to confirm deceptive behavior. However, combining the techniques of reading micro expressions with understanding body language and voice analysis can greatly improve the efficacy of polygraph exams in uncovering deception.

Micro expressions are another form of body language we display when we answer people’s questions with the right questioning techniques and a trained eye. It’s possible to spot potential deceptive behavior in others.

While micro expressions alone aren’t enough to spot a person lying, they can leave clues to their thoughts and feelings and the true intent behind their motives. Like the autonomic response of the sympathetic nervous system producing the “fight-or-flight” response, we cannot control these micro expressions or prevent them from occurring.

Despite our best intentions to suppress these Responses, when placed in a stressful situation, such as a polygraph exam, we collapse. Our emotional state is so heightened that we need full control over our body and mind to avoid making these “tells.” 

That’s just not possible to pull off when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged and flooding out r body with adrenaline and cortisol. So, micro expressions offer a valuable tool when used in combination with other techniques

How Can I Tell When Someone is Lying? – Part 3: The Freudian Slip

Uncover the Truth with a Professional Lie Detector Test – Our Carefully Vetted Examiners Ensure Your Peace of Mind.