Microexpression

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A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression made in reaction to an emotion. They usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain. Microexpressions occur when a person is consciously trying to conceal all signs of how he or she is feeling, or when a person does not consciously know how he or she is feeling. Unlike regular facial expressions, it is difficult to hide microexpression reactions. Microexpressions express the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt.

Nevertheless, in the 1990s, pyschologist Paul Ekman expanded his list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions not all of which are encoded in facial muscles. These emotions are amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, relief, satisfaction, pleasure, and shame. They are very brief in duration, lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second.

Microexpressions were first discovered by Haggard and Isaacs. In their 1966 study, they outlined finding these ‘micromomentary’ expressions while ‘scanning motion picture films of psychotherapy hours, searching for indications of non-verbal communication between therapist and patient.’ This reprint edition of Ekman and Friesen’s breakthrough research on the facial expression of emotion uses scores of photographs showing emotions of surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, anger, happiness, and sadness. The authors of ‘Unmasking the Face’ explain how to identify these basic emotions correctly and how to tell when people try to mask, simulate, or neutralize them. In the 1960s, William S. Condon pioneered the study of interactions at the fraction-of-a-second level. In his famous research project, he scrutinized a four-and-a-half-second film segment frame by frame, where each frame represented 1/25th 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.

Years after Condon’s study, American psychologist John Gottman began video-recording living relationships to study how couples interact. By studying participants’ facial expressions, Gottman was able to correlate expressions with which relationships would last and which would not. Gottman’s 2002 paper makes no claims to accuracy in terms of binary classification, and is instead an analysis of a two factor model where skin conductance levels and oral history narratives encodings are the only two statistically significant variables. Facial expressions using Ekman’s encoding scheme were not statistically significant. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink,’ Gottman states that there are four major emotional reactions that are destructive to a marriage: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Among these four, Gottman considers contempt the most important of them all.

There are three types of expressions: Simulated (not accompanied by a genuine expression), Neutralized (suppressed; the face remains neutral), and Masked (completely masked by a falsified expression). While various people can view microexpressions, it is much harder to detect on people in person or within films. The easiest tool to practice detecting micro expressions are photographs. Photographs show the facial blueprints of the major emotions-how surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness are registered by changes in the forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, cheeks, nose, lips, and chin. These help as there are not just one type of each expression. For example the emotion of surprise has many different expressions; questioning surprise, dumbfounded surprise, dazed surprise, slight, moderate, and extreme surprise. The intricacies of facial expressions are more easily read in photographs of how various emotions can blend or create different expressions.

Moods differ from emotions in that the feelings involved last over a longer period. For example, a feeling of anger lasting for just a few minutes, or even for an hour, is called an emotion. But if the person remains angry all day, or becomes angry a dozen times during that day, or is angry for days, then it is a mood. Many people describe this as a person being irritable, or that the person in in an angry mood. As Paul Ekman described, it is possible but unlikely for a person in this mood to show a complete anger facial expression. More often just a trace of that angry facial expression may be held over a considerable period-a tightened jaw or tensed lower eyelid, or lip pressed against lip, or brows drawn down and together. Emotions are stimulated in a person by some object or situation while moods are not created by this. An emotion only lasts for a short time, mood on the other hand can be felt for many days.

Facial expressions are not just uncontrolled instances. Some may be in fact voluntary, another involuntary; thus one may be truthful and another false. Some people are born able to control their expressions (such as pathological liars), while others are trained, for example actors. ‘Natural liars’ know about their ability to control microexpressions, and so do those who know them well. They have been getting away with things since childhood, fooling their parents, teachers, and friends when they wanted to. People can simulate emotion expressions, attempting to create the impression that they feel an emotion when they are not experiencing it at all. A person may show an expression that looks like fear when in fact he feels nothing, or feels sadness or some other emotion. Facial expressions of emotion are controlled for various reasons, whether cultural or by social conventions. For example, in the United States many little boys learn the cultural display rule, ‘little men do not cry or look afraid.’ There are also more personal display rules, not learned by most people within a culture, but the product of the idiosyncrasies of a particular family. A child may be taught never to look angrily at his father, or never to show sadness when disappointed, etc. These display rules, whether cultural ones shared by most people or personal, individual ones, are usually so well-learned, and learned so early, that the control of the facial expression they dictate is done automatically without thinking or awareness.

There is no sign of deceit itself—no gesture, facial expression, or muscle twitch that in and of itself means that a person is lying. There are only clues that the person is poorly prepared and clues of emotions that don’t fit the person’s line. These are what provide leakage or deception clues. Micro expressions are used as a way to detect if there is something off in a statement that a person mentions. They do not determine a lie but are a form of detecting concealed emotion. Psychologist David Matsumoto explains that one must not conclude that someone is lying if a microexpression is detected but that there is more to the story than is being told.

A question commonly asked is whether facial expressions within microexpressions are universal no matter what their background. Charles Darwin wrote that facial expressions of emotion are universal, not learned differently in each culture; that they are biologically determined, the product of man’s evolution. Many writers have disagreed with this statement. Dr. David Matsumoto however agreed with this statement in his study of sighted and blind Olympians. Using thousands of photographs captured at the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Matsumoto compared the facial expressions of sighted and blind judo athletes, including individuals who were born blind. All competitors displayed the same expressions in response to winning and losing. Dr. Matsumoto discovered that both blind and sighted competitors displayed similar facial expression, during winnings and loss. Evidence that our ability to modify our faces to fit the social setting is not learned visually. Paul Ekman also agreed that some facial expressions are indeed universal while there are cultural differences in when the expressions are shown.

The Facial Action Coding System or FACS is used to identify facial expression. It identifies the muscles that produce the facial expressions. To measure the muscle movements the action unit (AU) was developed. This system measures the relaxation or contraction of each individual muscle and assigns a unit. More than one muscle can be grouped into an Action Unit or the muscle may be divided into separate action units. The score consists of duration, intensity and asymmetry. This can be useful in identifying depression or measurement of pain in patients that are unable to express themselves. The Facial Action Coding System training manual, first published in 1978 with multimedia supplements, is designed to teach individuals how to detect and categorize facial movements. It can be particularly useful to behavioral scientists, CG animators, or computer scientists when they need to know the exact movements that the face can perform, and what muscles produce them. It also has potential to be a valuable tool for psychotherapists, interviewers, and other practitioners who must penetrate deeply into interpersonal communications.

Most people do not seem to perceive microexpressions in themselves or others. In the Wizards Project, previously called the ‘Diogenes Project,’ Drs. Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan studied the ability of people to detect deception. Of the thousands of people tested, only a select few were able to accurately detect when someone was lying. The Wizards Project researchers named these people ‘Truth Wizards.’ To date, the Wizards Project has identified just over 50 individuals with this ability after testing nearly 20,000 people. Truth Wizards use microexpressions, among many other cues, to determine if someone is being truthful. Scientists hope by studying wizards that they can further advance the techniques used to identify deception.

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