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There are several emotions that are given in facial expressions that can be picked up by the average person such as happiness, surprise, anger and fear. However, what many people do not know is that many times these facial expressions are not a true representation of how a person is feeling. The face is an always changing canvas on which people communicate their emotional states and from which they infer the emotional states of others. Aside from the obvious facial expressions people make because of a variety of emotions one may feel, there are also very brief expressions of emotion even when they are trying to suppress them (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). The untrained eye often misses these slight involuntary movements. These movements can range from a slight wince of the eye, a very subtly crooked smile, a twitch of the nose or perhaps even a slight quiver of the cheek muscles; these are known as Micro Expressions. Micro expressions are involuntary and are often times the only sign of deception that one may give when one is trying to mask his or her own true emotional state. These movements are very hard to detect because they are very brief, sometimes as fast as 1/25th of a second (Porter & Brinke, 2008) and they are very slight, most of the time not even the person having these movements can detect that they are making them.

One strategy used to facilitate deception is to alter or inhibit the facial expression that normally accompanies a particular emotion. There are three major ways in which emotional facial expressions are intentionally manipulated (Ekman & Friesen, 1990): When a facial expression is simulated when it is not accompanied by any genuine emotion, it is masked when the expression corresponding to the felt emotion is replaced by a falsified expression that corresponds to a different emotion, or neutralized when the expression of a true emotion is inhibited while the face remains neutral. It is commonly assumed that attention to certain aspects of facial expressions can reveal these forms of deceit (Mann, Virij, & Bull, 2002). For example, a micro expression can reveal a person’s sadness or anger in a situation where he or she is told that the person they secretly have feelings for is going to be married to someone that they also secretly despise. He or she may facially express happiness or surprise for this person but a slight facial movement may indicate that this feeling is not genuine.

Example - Research

Looking to further unravel the mechanics of micro expressions, Porter and Brink (2008) sought out to find what facial reactions one had when he or she tried to simulate, mask, or neutralize their true emotion. The hypothesis was that true emotion was more pure in expression, that is with no hesitation or and with fluidity. In other words, true emotion that was not masked, falsified or neutralized would be facially expressed in fluid motions, with no reluctance or other difficulties. While being videotaped, each participant viewed a timed slide show of emotional photographic images and responded to each image with a genuine or deceptive emotional expression. Each selected image fell into one of three categories: highly positive and arousing, highly negative and arousing, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant and non-arousing (i.e., neutral). The timed slide show contained a total of 17 images, organized into five sets defined by the expressions participants were instructed to exhibit.

The four emotional sets (express disgust, happiness, sadness, and fear) contained three images each. For example, in the happiness set, participants viewed one neutral, one happy, and one sad image. The fifth set included one neutral (truck), one disgusting (severed hand), one sad (incubated baby in distress), one happy (puppies playing), and one fearful (open-mouthed rabid dog) image, which participants viewed while retaining a neutral facial expression.

Before the presentation of the stimuli, participants were asked to display a convincing emotional expression in response to each image and were given explicit instructions regarding the emotion they were to express as each image was presented. For example, participants were instructed to respond to each image in the happiness set with a convincing display of happiness. Thus, in the case of the neutral photo, their happiness expression was simulated; in the case of the happy photo, their expression was genuine; and in the case of the sad image, their expression was masked. As a participant exhibited his or her emotional expressions, an observer judged the veracity of each. The observer was informed of the emotion the participant intended to express, but was blind to the image presented on the screen. Although the presence of an observer was intended primarily to increase the realism of the task and the motivation of the participant, it also permitted us to examine the ability of naive observers to detect deception in emotional facial expressions. Each image appeared for five seconds, followed by a five second break before the next image appeared. The slide show also contained two minute breaks between sets of pictures. Each participant viewed one of ten slide shows that counterbalanced the order of emotional sets, as well as the order of images within each set.

Porter and Brinke found that in all cases of neutralizing, falsifying and masking true emotions, all participants had higher rates of blinking and slight movement of the lower part of the face. Porter and Brinke also found that participants were largely successful in neutralizing their emotions. This pattern of results likely relates to the complexity of creating a masked expression, which requires concealing the underlying emotion and expressing an opposing, artificial emotion—a more complex task than simply concealing the felt emotion. It seems to be more difficult to adopt an emotional mask than to appear unemotional, as involuntary leakage of emotion in the lower face was more frequent in masked than in genuine expressions, whereas neutralized expressions did not differ from genuine neutral expressions. Similarly, masking emotion appears to lead to higher blink rates, whereas neutralizing the face reduces the number of blinks exhibited. This finding for blink rates suggests that the type of emotional lie and context are important in interpreting changes in blinking behavior. This discovery is very important because it can help people see how others may react in certain high stress and high stakes situations.

Example – Real -Life

For example, as a result of terrorist activity, airline security officials in the United States implemented a program to train security staff to identify potential threats in part by reading concealed emotions in the faces of passengers. The U.S. transportation agency has been training hundreds of ‘‘behavior detection’’ officers and plans to deploy them in major American airports (Lipton, 2006). Although Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.) officials are responsible for the chief safety of airport goers, T.S.A. officers do not have law enforcement powers, so if they observe someone suspicious, they may informally speak with the person but cannot conduct a more formal interrogation. That leaves them with the option of requiring the passenger to go through a more intense checkpoint search. Or if the suspicion is serious enough, they call the local police assigned to the airport to take over the inquiry. If a T.S.A. official is properly trained in behavior detection, he or she may prevent a safety breech from occurring. At times what can seem like a casual chat between a T.S.A. agent and an airport guest may very well be an attempt by the official to see if the passenger maybe in the act of committing a terroristic act or other sort of illegal activity.  


Ekman, P., Davidson, R.J., & Friesen, W.V. (1990). The Duchenne smile: Emotional expression and brain physiology: II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 342–353.

Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion (pp. 106-107). Canada: Thompson Wadsworth.

Lipton, E. (2006, August 17). Threats and responses: Screening; faces,too, are searched as U.S. airports try to spot terrorists. New YorkTimes. Retrieved February 11, 2010 from C8B63

Mann, S., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (2002). Suspects, lies, and videotape: An Analysis of Authentic High-Stake Liars. Law and Human Behavior, 26, 365–376.

Porter, S., & ten Brinke, L. (2008). Reading between the lies: Identifying concealed and falsified emotions in universal facial expressions. Psychological Science, 19(5), 508-514. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02116.x.

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