Science Brief

Reading facial expressions of emotion

Basic research leads to training programs that improve people’s ability to detect emotions.

By David Matsumoto and Hyi Sung Hwang

David MatsumotoDavid Matsumoto, is Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University and Director of Humintell, LLC. He has studied culture, nonverbal behavior, and emotion for over 30 years and has published over 120 journal articles in peer-reviewed, scientific journals. His books include Culture and Psychology, the Cambridge Dictionary of Psychology, and Cross-Cultural Research Methods in Psychology. He is the recipient of many awards and honors in the field of psychology, including being named a G. Stanley Hall lecturer by the American Psychological Association. He is the series editor for Cambridge University Press’ series on Culture and Psychology and is Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Hwi Sung HwangHyi Sung Hwang
, is a Research Scientist at Humintell, LLC. Her research interests are in emotion, nonverbal behaviors, and culture. She is an expert at the Facial Action Coding System and in the conduct of research examining facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors. She is co-creator of many of the training tools used to teach law enforcement officers and many other individuals how to recognize micro and subtle facial expressions of emotion. She is an author of a number of scientific publications and conference presentations in this area and is co-editor, with David Matsumoto and Mark Frank, of an upcoming book entitled Nonverbal Communication: Science and Applications.


Emotions are an incredibly important aspect of human life and basic research on emotions of the past few decades has produced several discoveries that have led to important real world applications. In this article we describe two of those discoveries – the universality of facial expressions of emotion and the existence of microexpressions – because of their importance to and novelty in psychology. We discuss how we have taken those discoveries to create programs that teach people how to read facial expressions of emotion, as well as recent research that has validated those training programs and documented their efficacy. 

Two Important Scientific Discoveries

The Universality of Facial Expressions of Emotion

Arguably the most important contribution basic science has made to our understanding of emotion concerns the universality of facial expressions of emotion. Darwin (1872) was the first to suggest that they were universal; his ideas about emotions were a centerpiece of his theory of evolution, suggesting that emotions and their expressions were biologically innate and evolutionarily adaptive, and that similarities in them could be seen phylogenetically. Early research testing Darwin’s ideas, however, was inconclusive (Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1972), and the dominant perspective in psychology was that facial expressions were culture-specific – that is, just as every culture had its own verbal language, it had its own language of facial expressions. Darwin’s claims were resurrected by Tomkins (1962, 1963), who suggested that emotion was the basis of human motivation and that the seat of emotion was in the face. Tomkins conducted the first study demonstrating that facial expressions were reliably associated with certain emotional states (Tomkins & McCarter, 1964).

Later, Tomkins recruited Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard to conduct what is known today as the “universality studies.” The first of these demonstrated high cross-cultural agreement in judgments of emotions in faces by people in both literate (Ekman, 1972, 1973; Ekman & Friesen, 1971; Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969; Izard, 1971) and preliterate cultures (Ekman & Friesen, 1971; Ekman, et al., 1969). Then Friesen’s (1972) study documented that the same facial expressions of emotion were produced spontaneously by members of very different cultures in reaction to emotion-eliciting films.

Since the original universality studies more than 30 studies examining judgments of facial expressions have replicated the universal recognition of emotion in the face (reviewed in Matsumoto, 2001). In addition a meta-analysis of 168 datasets examining judgments of emotion in the face and other nonverbal stimuli indicated universal emotion recognition well above chance levels (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002a). And there have been over 75 studies that have demonstrated that these very same facial expressions are produced when emotions are elicited spontaneously (Matsumoto, Keltner, Shiota, Frank, & O'Sullivan, 2008). These findings are impressive given that they have been produced by different researchers around the world in different laboratories using different methodologies with participants from many different cultures but all converging on the same set of results. Thus there is strong evidence for the universal facial expressions of seven emotions – anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: The Seven Basic Emotions and their Universal Expressions.

Other bodies of evidence provide support for the biological and genetic sources of facial expressions of emotion. For example, when emotions are spontaneously aroused even congenitally blind individuals produce the same facial expressions as sighted individuals do (Cole, Jenkins, & Shott, 1989; Galati, Miceli, & Sini, 2001; Galati, Sini, Schmidt, & Tinti, 2003; Matsumoto & Willingham, 2009). Facial behaviors of blind individuals are more concordant with kin than with strangers (Peleg et al., 2006), and some facial expressions to emotionally-provocative stimuli are more concordant among monozygotic twin pairs than dizygotic twins (Kendler et al., 2008). The same facial musculature that exists in adult humans exists in newborn infants and is fully functional at birth (Ekman & Oster, 1979). That same facial musculature that humans use for emotion signaling is also present in chimpanzees (Bard, 2003; Burrows, Waller, Parr, & Bonar, 2006), and the facial expressions considered to be universal among humans have been observed in nonhuman primates (de Waal, 2003).


A second important discovery concerns the existence of microexpressions. When single emotions occur and there is no reason for them to be modified or concealed, expressions typically last between 0.5 to 4 seconds and involve the entire face (Ekman, 2003). We call these macroexpressions; they occur whenever we are alone or with family and close friends. Macroexpressions are relatively easy to see if one knows what to look for. Microexpressions, however, are expressions that go on and off the face in a fraction of a second, sometimes as fast as 1/30 of a second. They are so fast that if you blink you would miss them.

Microexpressions are likely signs of concealed emotions. (They may also be signs of rapidly processed but unconcealed emotional states.) They occur so fast that most people cannot see or recognize them in real time. The idea that microexpressions exist has its roots in Darwin’s (1872) inhibition hypothesis that suggested that facial actions that cannot be controlled voluntarily may be produced involuntarily even if the individual is trying to control his or her expressions. Research on the neuroanatomical bases of emotional expressions suggests how this occurs. There are two neural pathways that mediate facial expressions, each originating in a different area of the brain (Rinn, 1984). The pyramidal tract drives voluntary facial actions and originates in the cortical motor strip, whereas the extrapyramidal tract drives involuntary emotional expressions and originates in subcortical areas of the brain. When individuals are in intensely emotional situations but need to control their expressions they activate both systems, which engage in a neural “tug of war” over control of the face, allowing for the quick, fleeting leakage of microexpressions.

The existence of microexpressions was verified almost a century after Darwin by Haggard & Isaacs (1966) while scanning films of psychotherapy sessions in slow motion. Later Ekman & Friesen (1974) demonstrated that microexpressions occurred in their frame by frame analysis of interviews with depressed inpatients. Most recently Porter & ten Brinke (2008) demonstrated that microexpressions occurred when individuals attempted to be deceitful about their emotional expressions.

Real World Applications of the Basic Science of Facial Expressions of Emotion

Findings concerning the universality of facial expressions of emotion and the existence of microexpressions can help people in a range of professions requiring face-to-face interactions improve their skills in reading the emotions of others. Reading facial expressions of emotion, and especially microexpressions, can aid the development of rapport, trust, and collegiality; they can be useful in making credibility assessments, evaluating truthfulness and detecting deception; and better information about emotional states provides the basis for better cooperation, negotiation, or sales. Health professionals can develop better rapport with patients, interact humanely with empathy and compassion, and make the right diagnosis by obtaining complete information. Teachers can read the emotions of their students to obtain cues about the progress of their lesson plans so they can adjust accordingly and deliver them more effectively. School administrators who read the emotions of their teachers can reduce burnout and maintain and improve teacher effectiveness. Businesspersons and negotiators who can read the emotions of others can nurture mutually beneficial collaborations. Product researchers can improve the qualitative data they obtain from consumers by reading consumer’s emotions when evaluating products, giving hints as to what they truly feel despite what they say about it. Parents, spouses, friends, and everyone with an interest in building strong and constructive relationships can benefit from improving their ability to read emotions.

People often get emotional when they lie, especially when the stakes are high. These emotions can occur because of the fear of getting caught, guilt or shame about the event lied about, or even because one likes the thought of successfully lying to others, especially those in positions of authority. Facial expressions, especially microexpressions, can be signs of these emotions and the ability to detect them may be important for individuals working in law enforcement, national security, intelligence, or the legal system. Individuals and organizations with interests in detecting lies have used programs we have developed that are based on information that has been substantiated in scientific research and informed by law enforcement experience observed in the real world by officers and agents who have worked with us. Our instructor-led training programs involve a combination of didactic, individual-, and group-based participatory exercises. We introduce trainees to knowledge about the nature of emotion; facial expressions, microexpressions, and other nonverbal behaviors including voice, gesture, gaze, and posture; and the nature of truth telling and lying and the nonverbal signals associated with both. Trainees use our training tools to improve their skills at reading micro- and subtle facial expressions of emotion. And they put these newfound skills and knowledge together by watching videos of actual interviews or interrogations, seeing what they have been missing. They often find over the course of the training that they are able to see and understand behavior that they previously could not understand or had misinterpreted, and these additional skills help them to find ground truth in testimony, depositions, interviews, and interrogations. These new skill sets complement their existing skill sets, not substitute for them, and help trainees to be more accurate and more efficient in their jobs.

Our training curriculum also includes stand-alone courses that people can access from anywhere via the internet. Our microexpression recognition training tools help people improve their ability to recognize microexpressions when they occur. They all include a pre-test so that users can gauge their natural propensity to see microexpressions; an instructional section providing audio and videos describing each of the universal facial expressions of emotion; a practice section where users can practice seeing microexpressions, with the ability to replay and freeze-frame on the expression to maximize learning; a review section where users can once again see examples of the universal expressions; and a post-test to assess their improvement. Our latest studies in this area have shown that training with our tools produces a reliable benefit not only at the end of the training but also that lasts beyond the training session and carries over into the work environment (Matsumoto & Hwang, in press). In this study the benefits of training were retained for two to three weeks after training in a sample of trial consultants, and improved emotion recognition scores were positively correlated with third party ratings of emotional and communication skills on the job for retail store employees.

Our stand-alone courses also include tools to help train people to see and recognize subtle expressions. Subtle expressions are emotional expressions that occur when a person is just starting to feel an emotion, when the emotional response is of low intensity, or when a person is trying to cover up their emotions but is not being entirely able to do so. They can involve the same muscles in a full-face expression just expressed at very low intensities. Or they can involve just parts of the face, such as just the brows and eyes, or just the mouth. Although microexpressions have received a lot of media attention in the past few years, research has shown that the ability to read subtle expressions better predicts the ability to detect deception than the ability to read microexpressions (Warren, Schertler, & Bull, 2009). This makes sense because even though microexpressions are clearly signs of concealed emotions, they probably occur much less frequently than subtle expressions. This is true not only in deceptive situations but in most emotional situations in everyday life. Thus the ability to see and recognize subtle expressions likely has a much higher benefit for practitioners. Designed much like our microexpression recognition tools described above, our latest studies indicate that people using our subtle expression training tools can reliably improve their ability to see subtle expressions (Hwang & Matsumoto, 2010). Given that subtle expressions occur in real life more frequently than micros or macros, and given that the ability to recognize subtle expressions is associated with the ability to detect deception, the availability of tools to train the ability to see subtle expressions is a major advantage for practitioners.

Our instructor-led and stand-alone training programs are in use in training personnel in a variety of agencies and professions, including those entering the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department, airport security personnel of the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Marshall’s Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.


Because facial expressions of emotion are part of our evolutionary history and are a biologically innate ability, we all have the ability to read them. It is an ability that gets better on the job in our everyday lives. This is especially true for macroexpressions. But most people are not very good at recognizing micro or subtle expressions. The average accuracy rates for people prior to training in Matsumoto & Hwang’s (in press) study was 48%; if joy and surprise – the two easiest expressions to see – are excluded, then that accuracy rate drops to 35%. And there are many individual differences. Fortunately, as mentioned above, tools have been developed to help people improve their skills regardless of what level of natural ability they have. Thus if one is in a profession where the ability to read facial expressions of emotion – especially micro and subtle expressions – may help one be more efficient or accurate, then there are resources available to do so. 

But the improved ability to read facial expressions, or any nonverbal behavior, is just the first step. What one does with the information is an important second step in the process of interaction. Being overly sensitive to nonverbal behaviors such as microexpressions and other forms of nonverbal leakage can be detrimental to interpersonal outcomes as well, as discussed in the literature on eavesdropping (Blanck, Rosenthal, Snodgrass, DePaulo, & Zuckerman, 1981; Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002b; Rosenthal & DePaulo, 1979). Individuals who call out other’s emotions indiscriminately can be considered intrusive, rude, or overbearing. Dealing effectively with emotion information about others is also likely to be a crucial part of the skill set one must have to interact effectively with others. Knowing when and how to intervene, to adapt one’s behaviors and communication styles, or engage the support and help of others, are all skills that must be brought into play once emotions are read.


Portions of this report were prepared with the support of research grant W91WAW-08-C-0024 from the Army Research Institute, and FA9550-09-1-0281 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to the first author.


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