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Why study micro expressions and the face?

Why study micro expressions and the face?


Stu Dunn

Regional Director, Human Behaviour Academy New Zealand

Micro expressions occur when someone wants to hide a felt emotion – so it  will always depend on the person (whether they care about hiding the emotion or not) and the situation (whether it would be bad for the person to be caught expressing that emotion, such as a child trying not to smile at a funeral) as to whether someone will leak an expression.

Micro expressions were first discovered by Haggard and Isaacs over 40 years ago. They published a report on these expressions in 1966, which they called “micromomentary” expressions. The article they wrote was entitled Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. Many subsequent studies have been conducted based on the research by Haggard and Isaacs, but the discovery of micro expressions should be attributed to them.

Emotions are immediate, automatic, and unconscious reactions – and are perhaps the closest thing humans have to a universal language. Truly felt emotions and expressions occur involuntarily, without thought or intention, where false expressions have to be displayed intentionally. The face is a dual system, showing both intentional and involuntary emotions – and sometimes a blended expression of genuine and fake displays. Put simply, the face displays what the person wants to show, and what the person wants to conceal.

Expressions are likely to be false when they are asymmetrical, the duration of expression is either too long or too short, or the timing of the expression in relation to the speech is not synchronized. The face can also be a valuable source of information for detecting deceit, because the face can lie and tell the truth – and often does both at the same time (Ekman, 2009).

The Seven Universal Expressions

Charles Darwin was one of the first people known for researching emotion, believing emotions to be biological and universal. Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen studied universal emotions in Papua New Guinea, verifying that even cultures which have no contact with the outside world share these seven universal emotions: happiness, surprise, contempt, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Therefore, the seven universal expressions are expressed by everyone, regardless of race, culture, age or gender. Studies done by David Matsumoto demonstrated that sighted and blind individuals produce the same facial muscle movements in response to emotional stimuli – even when they are blind from birth. This indicates that emotions are innate; we are born with the knowledge of how to express these emotions through facial expressions.

Cultural differences in non-verbal communication do start appearing when it comes to gestures, in particular, hand and facial emblems. Even areas within cities can have their own gesturing language and meaning.

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