Even though the majority of our nonverbal emotional communication is done through the face, our face does not always clearly display what we are feeling.
We learn to display emotions in socially appropriate ways.
If you get a birthday present that you do not like, you will probably make an expression of happiness, even though you feel disappointed. If you are angry that your boss has asked you to work this coming Saturday, instead of scowling and gritting your teeth, you are more likely to keep your face in a neutral expression, masking the anger you feel. If you're watching a playoff sports game with friends who are all rooting for the opposing team, but your team wins, you might downplay your level of excitement to be polite.
Our true emotions have a tendency to leak through in what are called microexpressions. These microexpressions are brief flashes in which our face will display a certain emotion for just 1/25th to 1/15th of a second. They can be very difficult to see with the naked eye, and are generally studied using recordings that have been slowed down.
In these studies, researchers will see people displaying one emotion but briefly flashing a microexpression that betrays their true feelings. In the example of the employee being asked to work on Saturday, he might hold a neutral face but flash a look of anger for 1/25th of a second. The boss would not see this look. At most, the boss might get a vague sense that the employee is upset about working over the weekend ... a sense she can't quite explain. But even that might not happen. Microexpressions often go completely unnoticed.
So what do these microexpressions look like in action? How good are you at detecting microexpressions? Care to find out?