At Humintell, we certainly talk a lot about reading other people’s emotions, but why is this such a big deal?
One obvious answer is that it is just really fascinating psychology, but there are also relevant and practical reasons to improve your ability to read microexpressions and other nonverbal cues. Not only are they particularly useful during law enforcement interrogations or cross-cultural interactions, but the ability to read others is useful in almost any interpersonal setting.
But first, what exactly is a microexpression? As Humintell’s Director, Dr. David Matsumoto, explains, “Microexpressions are unconscious, extremely quick, sometimes full-face expressions of an emotion. And sometimes they’re partial and very subtle expressions of emotion.”
Often, these microexpressions signify one of the seven basic emotions, but the majority of people either does not see any expression change or cannot understand the brief facial tick they see. Part of this is due to the incredibly brief nature of microexpressions, which can pass over a face as quickly as one-fifteenth of a second.
This means, Dr. Matsumoto points out, that freeze frame shots of individuals exhibiting microexpressions are not particularly subtle, but instead “if you take a freeze frame on it on a video, you’ll see that a lot of times there’s a big facial expression that is very clear about what the person’s mental state is.”
Reading other people’s emotions is not limited to microexpressions, however, as gestures and other types of nonverbal behavior are also telling signs of subtle or hidden emotional states. Dr. Matsumoto divides gestures into “speech illustrators” and “emblems.” The former, speech illustrators, are everyday animated gestures that many people use to emphasize or complement their speech.
Speech illustrators tend to be used by people from every culture, but they do differ in specifics. Emblems, on the other hand, are culturally specific gestures that refer to specific phrases, like a thumbs up.
The ability to read microexpressions is incredibly helpful in law enforcement or national security-related settings, where an interviewee may actively be concealing information. Nonverbal behavior analysis can help us “understand other people’s true feelings, their thoughts, their motivations, their personalities or their intentions.”
Yet, as Dr. Matsumoto points out, the application of emotional detection is “very clear for anybody whose job it is to be able to get that kind of additional insight.” It is not limited to law enforcement professionals but can be helpful to psychotherapists, sales professionals, lawyers, doctors, etc.
Similarly, as the cultural dependency of different gestures alluded to, the ability to understand nonverbal behavior can help us understand exactly what a person is trying to say. Knowing specific gestures can help, but also given the universality of basic emotional expressions, happiness, anger, or fear all present themselves similarly across the world.