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What is a Microexpression?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 August 2016
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In the 1960s, psychologist William Condon wanted to study tiny facial expressions lasting for less than a quarter of a second. He felt that such study could reveal a lot about hidden feelings, since most people made facial expressions called a microexpression, so quickly they were unaware they were doing it. By studying an exceptionally short film, just over four seconds long, frame by frame, he realized that small microexpressions, and small movements could reveal much about how a person was really feeling. This led to other psychologists studying almost unperceivable expressions through video tape to learn more about what people meant, instead of relying on more obvious longer gestures or facial expressions, and dialogue alone.

The idea that body language may convey meaning beyond our words is not a new one. If you grimace when you offer to do something you don’t really want to do, you may very well be conveying your true feelings. But many people are able to control a certain amount of their body language, especially long lasting gestures or facial expressions. We can put a smile on even if we don’t feel like smiling, or refrain from shrugging our shoulders when we enter someone’s dirty house.

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This idea of microexpression suggests that we may occasionally drop the smile or slightly move the shoulders up, just for a fraction of a second. Some people may be very good at understanding and catching these expressions, and others aren’t. Psychologist Paul Ekman, who worked with John Cleese on a four part series called The Human Face which aired on BBC networks in 2001, at first believed that some people seemed to have a knack for reading a microexpression, while others wouldn’t perceive them at all. He has since changed his opinion and now suggests that most people could be taught to notice and interpret microexpressions.

Where would microexpression interpretation come in handy? For a therapist, reading these expressions may be important work. People often, without even realizing, mask their feelings with words, instead of owning them. Some microexpression interpretation could be used to determine if someone is lying. This could be important if you were interviewing someone for a job, or if you were playing something like poker and you wondered if your opponents were bluffing.

There are interesting microexpression tests available online, so you can check out how good you are at reading these expressions. You can also slow down each expression to get a good look at what certain facial gestures connote. It’s a fun way to find if you have a knack for this type of reading, or if you’d need further training to become a microexpression expert.

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