advanced face reading

How good are you at face reading? Good enough to tell when someone is lying? Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has studied faces and emotions for decades, writes in his book Emotions Revealed that most of us can recognize the full or intense expressions people make when they feel strongly and have no reason to hide what they feel. But most of us have trouble reading the subtler faces people make when they don’t feel strongly or they’re trying to conceal their emotions. Ekman thinks, however, that we can improve our face-reading skills with practice.

If people are trying to regulate an emotion — for example, to look less sad — their sorrowful expression will still be there, but may appear very slight (the muscles of the face may be contracted just a little instead of a lot) or involve only part of the face. If people are trying to hide the emotion completely, on the other hand, the expression may be extremely brief, appearing for only a fifth of a second or less. (In normal conversation, most expressions last about a second.) Ekman calls these microexpressions. In the hardest faces to read, the expression may be both brief and partial or slight.

To see how good you are at recognizing subtle expressions, take this test from Emotions Revealed. Get a sheet of paper and number the lines from 1 to 12. Write the following words at the top: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise, and enjoyment. These are the choices for the test expressions, but you can also write down other words if you don’t think any of the ones given fit. Look at one picture at a time (cover the others up in some way), and only for a fraction of a second. Then turn away and write down the emotion you think is being displayed. Play your hunches, because you may recognize the expressions without realizing it. Once you’ve finished all 12 pictures, take a break and then try the test again, but look at each photo a bit longer, say a second or two. Then check the answers on page 14.

Don’t worry about how many you missed. Most adults who look at these photographs briefly get about four right. Even when people study them, most don’t get more than eight right. They’re hard to identify because they are partial, slight, or a blend of two emotions. But they should get easier to identify if you practice. And if you want to practice more, you can order a training CD at Ekman’s Web site,

This article appeared in the April 2005 issue of the children’s science magazine Muse.
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