Facial Expression Recognition basics



The human brain, ever so complex, works on different levels.  To put it in very basic terms, we have an autonomic system (automatic stuff) and a cognitive system (thinking stuff).  That “automatic” brain is known as the “Limbic” brain, or our paleomammalian brain.  This part of our brain is responsible for controlling, among other things, our emotions.  The limbic brain reacts, without conscious thought, immediately to stimulus.  It is this limbic brain that leaks our emotions before our cognitivebrain can completely block the emotional display.

The famed Dr. Paul Ekman, the inspiration for the hit TV show “Lie to Me”, discovered seven universal emotional displays.  Because these emotional displays are universal, they can be relied on to be accurate. The following seven emotions, according to Dr. Ekman, are displayed by humans the world over:

Happiness is one of the most easily recognized emotions.  A genuine smile will effect the eyes, which will be displayed by “crows feet” at the corner of the eyes.  The cheeks will be pushed up and the smile should usually be symmetrical (for most people).  A fake smile will look flat and just effect the mouth.  If the brow bunches up (creating a lot of lines), the smile is fake.


Sadness displays will include loss of focus in the eye, the obligatory frown and drooping upper eyelids.  A key read I use (not shown in the photograph) is raising of the inner eyebrows (think puppy dog eyes).  Another symptom is protruding lower lip (pouting).  Many times, a sadness display will be accompanied by a droop in the shoulders.


Surprise is evidenced by the bilateral raising of the eyebrows and opening the mouth in an “o”. The eyes  will widen evenly.  Surprise is usually accompanied with a distancing display.  Surprise and fear are commonly confused with each other, so the big difference to look for is the amount of slack in the mouth (fear displays include a tightening of the lips) and the eyebrow display.


Fear is displayed in our faces by tensing of the lower eyelids, widening of the eyes and the eyebrows are pulled up and together,creating a crease in the center of the brow.  Often the mouth is pulled tight with lips either narrowing or closed.  Fear is usually accompanies with distancing and a sharp inhale.


Disgust is an easy emotion to recognize.  The crinkling of the nose and raised upper lips toward the center of the face are strong indicators of disgust.  Gestural displays that accompany disgust are usually distancing and turning of the head.


Anger cues include pursing of the lips, nasal wing dilation (flaring the nostrils) and crunching of the eyebrows.  There usually be glare in the eyes (think “flashes of anger”).  Anger is commonly accompanied by increased breathing rate and facial reddening.


Contempt is an easy display to read.  It is also a very dangerous emotion.  A sign of “moral superiority” , a display of contempt should be a major red flag.  Contempt is displayed by pinching and raising the corner of the lips together on one side. Contempt is also displayed by rolling of the eyes.


There are varying degrees of emotions.  For instance, annoyance is a mild form of anger.  Therefore the cues to the emotion are considerably more mild for annoyance than say, rage.  Annoyance may just display pursed lips (something that happens to me quite often when I play Candy Crush).  It is important that the reader understand that the more mild form of emotion will be more concealable- it is much more easy to hide annoyance than rage.  The emotional displays do not always include all of the listed cues.  Also, it is very important to understand that emotions will blend together.  It is possible to feel anger and contempt at the same time.  This may lead to mixed signals.  You will, however, still be correct if you adequately recognize a cue of either.

Dr. Ekman’s work with microexpressions, expressions that flash as quickly as .25 seconds was outlined in his 1985 book, “Telling Lies”.  Microexpressions are clues to emotional leakage when the individual is trying to hide how he or she truly feels.  This is where the ability to recognize the display comes in handy in deception detection.  When the words someone is saying do not match the expression and/or body language, then believe the expression over what is said.  If your business proposal is met by your counterpart with a “It looks good” statement accompanied by a quick nose wrinkle, you might want to revise the proposal, or at least address the possibility that your counterpart is less than thrilled by your offer.

Learning to effectively recognize microexpressions takes time and practice, but understanding the cues to an emotion will help you realize what another is feeling/thinking.  I recommend starting with simply trying to recognize the macro expressions, those that occur at a standard rate (usually one to three seconds).  As your skill level increases, you will better recognize the microexpressions as signs of possible deception.

Ryan Mann is a managing partner of Diamond and Mann Investigations, a private investigative firm based in Volusia County, FL (A1200042).  He is a former police detective and holds a BS Degree with a double major in Psychology and Criminal Justice.  He scored a 100% on Dr. Ekman’s advanced MicroExpression Training.  Ryan has conducted seminars all over Florida on the topic of Deception Detection and Body Language Interpretation.  His course has been approved by the Florida Bar Association for CLE credit. If you have any questions, or are interested in learning about deception detection/body language, Ryan can be reached at (386)624-3055 or ryan@centralfloridainvestigations.com


2 thoughts on “Facial Expression Recognition basics

  1. Kurt Newman

    A subject of great personal interest – reading and understanding people better. I coach salespeople in professionalism, skills and strategies. Being able to understand how we project ourselves and read others helps to create relationships in business that a competitor would find difficult to duplicate. At a personal level why wouldn’t utopia be possible?

    1. Ryan Mann, CFE Post author

      Everyone in every profession can benefit from improved communication. Since so much of our communication is non verbal (body language, facial expressions), knowing how to interpret others non verbal communication and becoming adept at controlling your own can only facilitate good, honest communication. I’ve coached sales teams and they benefit greatly from this knowledge. Thanks for commenting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s