We all know how to read macroexpressions—those facial movements that last up to four seconds in duration—but there are quicker, more fleeting expressions that are so fast, they could easily be missed by the untrained eye.
According to Ekman, facial expressions are actually physiological reactions.
These expressions occur even when you’re not around anyone who could see them.
He found that across cultures, people used microexpressions to display their emotions on their faces in very predictable ways—even when they were attempting to conceal them or even when they themselves were unaware of the emotion.
His research led him to believe that microexpressions are spontaneous, tiny contractions of certain muscle groups that are predictably related to emotions and are the same in all people, regardless of upbringing, background, or cultural expectation.
They can be as quick as one-thirtieth of a second long.
But catching them and understanding what they mean is a way to cut through what is merely said to get to the deeper truth of what people feel and believe.
Macroexpressions can be, to some extent, forced or exaggerated, but microexpressions are understood to be more genuine and difficult to fake or else suggestive of concealed or rapidly changing emotions.
01:28 Within the brain, there are two neural pathways related to facial expressions.
The first is the pyramidal tract, responsible for voluntary expressions (i.e., most macroexpressions), and the extrapyramidal tract, responsible for involuntary emotional facial expressions (i.e., microexpressions).
Researchers have discovered that individuals who experience intense emotional situations but also external pressure to control or hide that expression will show activity in both these brain pathways.
This suggests that they’re working against one another, with the more conscious and voluntary expressions dominating the involuntary ones.
Nevertheless, some tiny expressions of the real emotion may “leak” out—this is what you’re looking for when you attempt to read a person in this way.
So just exactly how does one learn to read these expressions?
Can you really decode a person’s deepest feelings just by looking at a twitch of their nose or a wrinkle in their brow?
According to Ekman, there are six universal human emotions, all with corresponding minuscule facial expressions.
Happiness is seen in lifted cheeks, with the corners of the mouth raised up and back.
Wrinkles appear under the eyes, between the upper lip and nose, and in the outside corner of the eyes.
In other words, the movements we’re all familiar with in an ordinary smile are there on a micro level too.
Microexpressions suggesting sadness are also what you’d expect.
The outer corner of the eyes droops down, along with the corners of the lips.
The lower lip may even tremble.
Eyebrows may form a telltale triangle shape.
For the emotion of disgust, the upper lip lifts and may be accompanied by wrinkles above it and wrinkles on the forehead.
The eyes may narrow slightly as the cheeks are raised.
For anger, eyebrows lower and tense up, often at a downward angle.
Eyes tighten, too, and the lips may be pursed or held stiffly open.
The eyes are staring and piercing.
Fear, on the other hand, entails similar contractions but upward.
Whether open or closed, the mouth is tense, and both upper and lower eyelids are lifted.
Finally, surprise or shock will show itself in elevated brows—rounded rather than triangular, like with sadness.
The upper eyelids lift up and the lower eyelids stretch downward, opening the eyes wide.
Sometimes, the jaw can hang loosely open.
As you can see, microexpressions are not very different from macroexpressions in the muscles that are involved; the main difference is in their speed.
Ekman demonstrated, however, that these quick flashes of muscle contraction are so fast that people miss them: ninety-nine percent of people were unable to perceive them.
Nevertheless, he also claims that people can be trained to look for microexpressions and in particular learn to detect liars, a classic example of saying one thing and feeling another.
Ekman claims to be able to teach his technique within thirty-two hours, but for those of us who are curious about using the principles in our own lives, it’s easy to start.
Firstly, look for discrepancies between what is said and what is actually demonstrated through facial expressions.
For example, someone might be assuring you verbally and making promises but showing quick expressions of fear that betray their real position.
Other classic indicators that you are being lied to include lifting the shoulders slightly while someone is vehemently confirming the truth of what they’re saying.
Scratching the nose, moving the head to the side, avoiding eye contact, uncertainty in speaking, and general fidgeting also indicate someone’s internal reality is not exactly lining up with the external—i.e., they might be lying.
Again, it’s worth mentioning here that this is not a foolproof method and that research has mostly failed to find a strong relationship between body language, facial expression, and deceitfulness.
No single gesture alone indicates anything.
Many psychologists have since pointed out that discrepancies in microexpressions can actually indicate discomfort, nervousness, stress, or tension, without deception being involved.
Nevertheless, when used as a tool along with other tools, and when taken in context, microexpression analysis can be powerful.
Granted, you’ll need to stare quite intently at the person and observe them in a way that’s uncomfortable and too obvious for normal social situations.
You’ll also have to weed out tons of irrelevant data and decide what gestures count as “noise” or meaningless idiosyncrasies.
At any rate, people who lack the required training have been shown to be astoundingly bad at spotting liars—despite feeling as though their gut intuitions about others’ deceit is reliable.
This means that even a slight increase in accuracy you might gain from understanding and implementing the microexpression theory may make all the difference.
A microexpression may be small, but it’s still a data point.
All this talk of unmasking liars may make this technique seem rather combative and underhanded, but Ekman is careful to point out that “lies” and “deceit,” as he frames them, can also indicate the hiding of an emotion and not necessarily any malicious intent.
There is certainly an allure in playing detective and uncovering people’s secret feelings, but in reality, the use of microexpression analysis is a bit like CSI: it always looks a bit more impressive on TV than it is in real life.
Furthermore, the goal in developing the skill of microexpression analysis is not to play “gotcha!” to our friends and colleagues, but rather to enhance our own empathy and emotional intelligence and foster a richer understanding of the people around us.
If you’re not convinced about using microexpressions to detect deception, another perspective is not to look for lies or classify expressions according to their duration, but rather to look at what an expression typically conveys.
Then, depending on context and how the expression compares to what’s said verbally, you can come to your own conclusions.
Nervousness is typically behind things like tightening the lips or twitching the corners of the mouth very quickly toward the ear and back.
Quivering lips or chin, a furrowed brow, narrowed eyes, and pulled-in lips may also indicate the person is feeling tense.
If a person you know is normally calm and composed but you suddenly notice plenty of these little signs while they tell you a tale you don’t quite believe, you might infer that, for some reason, they’re nervous about telling it to you.
Whether this is because they’re lying or because their story is simply uncomfortable to tell—only you can decide from context.
A person feeling dislike or disagreement might purse their lips tightly, roll their eyes, flutter their eyelids briefly, or crinkle their nose.
They may also squint a little or narrow their eyes like a cartoon villain staring down the hero, close their eyes, or “sneer” a little in a slight expression of disdain.
If a person opens the Christmas present you gave them and immediately proceeds to do all of the above, you might want to assume they don’t really like their gift, despite what they say to the contrary.
Those dealing with stress may find tiny ways to release that stress, giving themselves away even though for the most part they appear quite calm.
Uncontrollable, fast blinking and making repetitive motions like twitching the cheek, biting the tongue, or touching parts of the face with their fingers can all indicate someone who’s finding a particular situation stressful.
This might make sense when someone’s in a job interview or being questioned in connection with a crime but may be more noteworthy if you spot it in seemingly calm situations.
This discrepancy gives you a clue that all might not be as it appears.
Pay attention also to asymmetry in facial expressions.
Natural, spontaneous, and genuine expressions of emotion tend to be symmetrical.
Forced, fake, or conflicting expressions tend not to be.
And again, try to interpret what you see in context, and consider the whole person, including other body language.
Remember that analyzing facial expressions is a powerful method of understanding others that’s more than “skin-deep,” but it’s not foolproof.
Every observation you make is simply a data point and doesn’t prove anything either way.
The skill comes in gathering as much data as you can and interpreting the whole, emerging pattern before you, rather than just one or two signs.
For this reason, it’s best to use what you know about microexpressions as a supplement to other methods and tools.
11:00 Body Talk
Body language, for instance, may be just as powerful a language to learn to read and comprehend as facial expressions.
After all, the face is simply a part of the body.
Why focus on just one part when people’s postures and general movements can speak just as eloquently?
Ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro is generally considered an authority in this field and has used his experience to teach others about the wealth of information people share without ever opening their mouths (i.e., what he calls “nonverbal communication”).
Originally from Cuba and having to learn English after moving to the U.S. when he was eight years old, Navarro quickly came to appreciate how the human body was “a kind of billboard that advertised what a person was thinking."
During his career he spoke at length about learning to spot people’s “tells”—those little movements that suggest that someone is uncomfortable, hostile, relaxed, or fearful.
As with facial expressions, these tells may hint at deceit or lies but primarily indicate that someone is uncomfortable or that there is a discrepancy between what’s felt and what’s expressed.
Armed with an understanding of how body language works, we can not only open up new channels on which to communicate with others, but pay attention to our own bodies and the messages we may be unwittingly sending to others.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that nonverbal communication is inbuilt, biological, and the result of evolution.
Our emotional responses to certain things are lightning-fast, and they happen spontaneously, whether we want them to or not.
Importantly, they express themselves physically in the way we hold and move our bodies in space, potentially resulting in the transmission of thousands of nonverbal messages.
It’s the more primitive, emotional, and perhaps honest part of our brain, the limbic brain, that’s responsible for these automatic responses.
While the prefrontal cortex (the more intellectual and abstract part) is a little removed from the body, and more under conscious control, it’s also the part that’s capable of lying.
But even though a person can say one thing, their bodies will always speak the truth.
If you can tune into the gestures, movements, postures, patterns of touching, and even the clothing a person wears, you give yourself a more direct channel into what they really think and feel.
Navarro claims that the majority of communication is nonverbal anyway—meaning you’re actively missing out on the bulk of the message by not considering body language.
Consider that communication started out nonverbally.
In our earliest histories, before the development of language, humankind most likely communicated by gestures, simple sounds, and facial expressions.
In fact, from the moment a baby is born it instinctively makes faces to communicate that it’s cold, hungry, or frightened.
We never need to be taught how to read basic gestures or understand tones of voice—this is because nonverbal communication was our first communication and may still be our preferred form.
Think of all the ways you already take nonverbal communication for granted—in the way you show love or demonstrate your anger.
Even if you aren’t aware of it, we are all still processing vast amounts of information on nonverbal channels.
Learn how to read this information and you can determine if someone is trying to deceive you or perhaps if someone is trying to conceal their feelings and true intentions from you.
You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response before, but there’s a third possibility: freeze.
What’s more, these responses to danger may be quite subtle, but nevertheless, they speak to discomfort and fear.
Our ancestors might have shown fight-or-flight when running from predators or enemy tribes, but those instincts might have followed us into the boardroom or classroom.
The limbic brain is again responsible for these fear responses.
Someone who is asked a difficult question or put on the spot may look like a deer caught in headlights.
They may lock their legs around a chair and stay fixed tight in that position (this is the freeze response).
Another possibility is physically moving the body away from what is perceived as threatening.
A person may put an object on their lap or position their limbs toward the exit (the flight response).
Finally, a third person may “fight."
This aggressive response to fear can show itself in picking arguments, verbally “sparring,” or adopting threatening gestures.
In fact, the more competent you become at reading nonverbal signals, the more you may come to appreciate how fundamentally physical they are and how much they speak to our shared evolutionary history.
In the past we might have literally fended off an attack with certain gestures or indeed set out to attack another with very obvious movements and expressions.
These days, our world is very abstract and the things that threaten us are more verbal and conceptual—but the old machinery for expression, fear, aggression, curiosity, etc., is all still there, only perhaps expressed a little more subtly.
16:49 Let’s consider what are called “pacifying behaviors."
These can offer a key insight into someone who is feeling stressed, unsure, or threatened.
Essentially, a pacifying behavior is what it sounds like—the (unconscious) attempt to self-soothe in the face of some perceived threat.
When we feel stressed, our limbic brain may compel us to make little gestures designed to calm us: touching the forehead, rubbing the neck, fiddling with hair, or wringing the hands are all behaviors intended to soothe stress.
The neck is a vulnerable area of the body, but one that is relatively exposed.
Consider how aggressive people “go for the jugular” and you understand how the throat and neck can be unconsciously felt to be an area open for fatal attack.
It makes sense then that someone unconsciously covering or stroking this area is expressing their struggle, emotional discomfort, or insecurity.
Men may use this gesture more often than women; men may fidget with their ties or squeeze the top of the neck, while women may put the fingers to the suprasternal notch (the indent between the collarbones) or play nervously with a necklace.
Pay attention to this behavior and you’ll notice how it reveals someone’s fears and insecurities in real-time.
Someone might say something a little aggressive and another person responds by leaning back slightly, crossing the arms, and putting one hand up to the throat.
Notice this in real-time and you can infer that this particular statement has aroused some fear and uncertainty.
Similarly, rubbing or touching the forehead or temples can signal emotional distress or overwhelm.
A quick tap with the fingers may reveal a momentary feeling of stress, whereas a prolonged cradling of the head in both hands can spell extreme distress.
In fact, you can consider any cradling, stroking, or rubbing movement as the physical clue of a person’s need to self-pacify.
This could mean touching cheeks when the person feels nervous or frightened, rubbing or licking the lips, massaging the earlobes, or running the fingers through the hair or beard.
Pacifying behaviors are not just things liked stroking or rubbing, though.
Puffing out the cheeks and exhaling loudly is also a gesture that releases considerable stress.
Have you ever noticed how many people will do this after hearing bad news or narrowly escaping an accident?
An unexpected stress release response is yawning—rather than indicating boredom, the body’s sudden attempt to draw in more oxygen during stressful times is even seen in other animals.
“Leg cleansing” is another, and it entails wiping down the legs as though to wash them or brush off dust.
This can be missed if it’s hidden under a table, but if you can notice it, it is a strong indication of an attempt to self-soothe during stressful moments.
“Ventilating” is another behavior you may not pay much attention to.
Notice someone pulling their shirt collar away from their neck or tossing the hair away from the shoulders as though to cool off.
They’re likely experiencing discomfort or tension.
Though this might be literally because of an uncomfortable environment, it’s more likely a response to inner tension and stress that needs “cooling off.”
One of the most obvious forms of pacifying behavior looks exactly like what a mother might do to a young child to soothe them: cradling and hugging one’s own body or rubbing the shoulders as though to ward off a chill all suggest a person who feels under threat, worried, or overwhelmed—these gestures are an unconscious way to protect the body.
This is an important underlying principle across all of body language theory: that limbs and gestures may signal unconscious attempts to protect and defend the body.
When you consider that the torso contains all the body’s vital organs, you can understand why the limbic brain has reflex responses to shield this area when threats are perceived—even emotional threats.
Someone who is highly unresponsive to a request or who feels attacked or criticized may cross their arms as if to say, “Back off."
Raising the arms to the chest during an argument is a classic blocking gesture, almost as if the words being exchanged were literally thrown, causing an unconscious reflex to fend them off.
On a similar note, slumping, loose arms can indicate defeat, disappointment, or despair.
It’s as though the body is physically broadcasting the nonphysical sentiment of “I can’t do this.
I don’t know what to do.
I give up.”
Let’s take it further.
Imagine someone standing over a desk, arms spread wide.
Aren’t you immediately reminded of an animal claiming territory?
Wide, expansive gestures signal confidence, assertiveness, and even dominance.
If a person is standing with arms akimbo, they leave their torso exposed.
This is a powerful way to communicate that they are confident in taking up room and don’t feel threatened or unsure in the least.
Other gestures of confidence and assertiveness include that favorite of politicians and businessmen the world over: “hand steepling."
The fingertips are pressed together so they form a little steeple.
It’s the classic negotiating gesture, signaling confidence, poise, and certainty about your power and position, as though the hands were merely resting and calmly contemplating their next move.
On the other hand (pun intended) wringing and rubbing the hands is more likely to demonstrate a lack of feeling in control or doubt in one’s own abilities.
Again, this is a pacifying gesture designed to release tension.
Hands are our tools to effect change in the world and bring about our actions.
When we fidget, wring our hands, or clench our fists, we are demonstrating a lack of ease and confidence in our abilities or find it difficult to act confidently.
23:27 What about the legs?
These are often overlooked since they might be concealed under a desk, but legs and feet are powerful indicators too.
“Happy feet” can bounce and jiggle—on the other hand, bouncy legs paired with other nervous or pacifying gestures may indicate an excess of nervous tension and energy or impatience ... or too much coffee, you decide.
Toes that point upward can be thought of as “smiling” feet and indicate positive, optimistic feelings.
Physiologically, our legs and feet are all about, unsurprisingly, movement.
Busy feet could suggest an unexpressed desired to get moving, either literally or figuratively!
It’s also been said that feet point in the direction they unconsciously wish to go.
Both toes turned toward the conversation partner can signal “I’m here with you; I’m present in this conversation” whereas feet angled toward an exit could be a clue that the person really would prefer to leave.
Other clues that someone is wanting to move, leave, or escape are gestures like clasping the knees, rocking up and down on the balls of the feet, or standing with a bit of a bounce in the step—all of these subtly communicate someone whose unconscious mind has “fired up the engines” and wants to get going.
This could mean they’re excited about possibilities and want to get started as soon as possible, or they may have a strong dislike for the current situation and almost literally want to “run away."
Again, context matters!
Legs and feet can also reveal negative emotions.
Crossing the legs, as with the arms, can signal a desire to close off or protect the body from a perceived threat or discomfort.
Crossed legs are often tilted toward a person we like and trust—and away from someone we don’t.
This is because the legs can be used as a barrier, either warding off or welcoming in someone’s presence.
Women may dangle shoes off the tips of the toes in flirtatious moments, slipping a shoe on and off the heel again.
Without getting too Freudian about it, the display of feet and legs can indicate comfort and even intimacy with someone.
On the other hand, locking the feet and ankles can be part of a freeze response when someone really doesn’t like a situation or person.
So having discussed the face, hands, legs and feet, and torso in general, what else is there?
Turns out, a lot more.
The body as a whole can be positioned in space in certain ways, held in certain postures, or brought further or closer to other people.
The next time you meet someone new, lean in to shake their hand and then watch what they do with their entire body.
If they “stand their ground” and stay where they are, they’re demonstrating comfort with the situation, you, and themselves.
Taking a step back or turning the entire torso and feet to the side suggests that you may have gotten too close for their comfort.
They may even take a step closer, signaling that they are happy with the contact and may even escalate it further.
The general principle is pretty obvious: bodies expand when they are comfortable, happy, or dominant.
They contract when unhappy, fearful, or threatened.
Bodies move toward what they like and away from what they don’t like.
Leaning toward a person can show agreement, comfort, flirtation, ease, and interest.
Likewise, crossing the arms, turning away, leaning back, and using tightly crossed legs as a barrier show a person’s unconscious attempt to get away from or protect themselves from something unwanted.
Those people who spread out on public transport?
They feel relaxed, secure, and confident (annoying, isn’t it?).
Those that seem to bundle themselves as tightly as possible may instead signal low confidence and assertiveness, as though they were always trying to take up less room.
Similarly puffing up the chest and holding out the arms in an aggressive posture communicates, “Look how big I am!” in an argument, whereas raising the shoulders and “turtling” in on oneself is nonverbally saying, “Please don’t hurt me!
Look how small I am!”
We’re not much like gorillas in the forest, beating our chests during heated arguments—but if you look closely, you may still see faint clues to this more primal behavior anyway.
Those postures that take up room and expand are all associated with dominance, assertiveness, and authority.
Hands on the hips, hands held regally behind the back (doesn’t it make you think of royalty or a dignified soldier who is unafraid of attack?), or even arms laced behind the neck as one leans back in a chair—all signify comfort and dominance.
When you are becoming aware of people’s body language, ask in the first instance whether their actions, gestures, and postures are constricting or expanding.
Is the face open or closed?
Are the hands and arms spread wide and held loose and far from the body, or are the limbs kept close and tense?
Is the facial expression you’re looking at pulled tight or loose and open?
Is the chin held high (sign of confidence) or tucked in (sign of uncertainty)?
Imagine you have no words at all to describe what you’re looking at; just observe.
Is the body in front of you relaxed and comfortable in space, or is there some tightness, tension, and unease in the way the limbs are held?
A lot of the art of body language is, once pointed out, rather intuitive.
This is because each of us is actually already fluent in its interpretation.
It is merely allowing ourselves to de-emphasize the verbal for a moment to take notice of the wealth of nonverbal information that’s always flowing between people.
None of it is really concealed.
Rather, it’s a question of opening up to data coming in on a channel we are not taught to pay attention to.