7 Facial Expressions: What They Really Mean
By Cassandra Evanas, DivineCaroline
When trying to figure out whether someone’s lying to me, I look for the classic signs, as dictated by pop culture—shifty, averted eyes, twitching, rapid blinking, and so forth. But most psychologists and body language experts will tell you that none of those indicate lying. In fact, pinpointing a lie based on physical cues only works about half of the time, making it a guessing game at best.
What is true is that more is revealed by our mannerisms than we realize. Paul Ekman, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, believes that we make unconscious flashes of expressions—called microexpressions—that demonstrate our true feelings. And because they involve muscles that can’t be activated at will, these expressions are uncontrollable. But recognizing these hidden emotions requires learning to read between the furrowed brows and stretched lips.
The Seven Universal Expressions
Microexpressions pop up extremely briefly, ranging from 1/5 to 1/25 of a second in length, so most people don’t pick up on them without training. Ekman came up with seven standard expressions and their key components to look for when trying to figure out how the person you’re speaking with really feels.
Raised lip corners and crinkled eyelids indicate that the person’s happy. Look for crow’s feet to indicate whether a smile is genuine or not. True smiling, like all expressions, involve muscles beyond our control, so a trained eye can tell the real from the fake simply by noting whether the muscles surrounding the eye socket are in use.
Fear is often characterized by parted lips, wide-open eyes, and raised eyebrows that bunch together. However, thinly-stretched lips on a closed mouth can also mean someone is nervous or scared about something.
Anger’s not too hard to recognize—furrowed eyebrows, a frowning mouth, chin jutting out, and narrowed eyes all suggest that the person’s mad.
Sad people also have downturned mouths, but also a wrinkled, wavering chin (think of what happens to it when you’re trying not to cry), and a wrinkled, creased forehead.
Did you detect a slight sneer or did the side of his or her mouth raise a little? That could mean he or she’s feeling contempt.
Surprise looks similar to fear, but the mouth and eyes are open a little wider and the eyebrows are raised without being bunched up.
Someone who’s disgusted wrinkles his or her nose and has narrowed eyes. Usually the mouth parts somewhat because of the nose wrinkling.
More to Watch Out For
Beyond microexpressions, there are a few telltale signs that someone’s not being genuine. For example, most real expressions last a few seconds—four or five, tops. If someone’s huge smile or scared look lasts longer than that, it’s suspect. Some also believe that eye movements during story-telling say something about truthfulness. Eyes moving upward and to the right when explaining something might mean the person’s searching through his or her brain bank for details, whereas looking up and to the left suggests a deceptive tale. (This would be reversed if he or she’s left-handed.)
According to Ekman, it’s better to look at the upper part of the face because it’s harder to control our impulsive facial expressions in that area, such as narrowed eyes or raised eyebrows. So if you’re watching someone’s face for signs revealing their inner thoughts, focus on that area first.
One Piece of the Puzzle
Even the most educated experts at lie detection can’t get it right every time and that’s because humans are complex creatures with a multitude of mannerisms that vary in meaning. We can learn to recognize facial expressions—and even to see the flashes of expressions that give away our inner thoughts—but that alone won’t tell us what’s behind the hidden emotions.
In other words, seeing a significant other’s half-second fearful look while they’re explaining why they were out so late is significant, but it doesn’t indicate that they’re lying. If anything, they might just be afraid you won’t believe the truth. Either way, you’ll know there’s an issue worth exploring. Reading faces may not be foolproof, but at least it gives us something to work with.