While overhearing a question like that will probably make for a great eavesdropping experience, that isn’t the type of surprise we are talking about.  We are not surprised when something unfolds slowly in front of us, for surprise to be real “It must be sudden, and we must be unprepared” (Ekman, Emotions Revealed, 149).  What separates this emotion from the others that we have talked about, is that it only stays on the face for an extremely short amount of time, usually no more than a couple seconds at most.

What will extend the time a person will display a reaction to a surprising event is when that surprise morphs into a different expression of emotion.  If the thing that startled them was quickly realized to be threatening, we could see fear or anger immediately following the expression of surprise.  If the surprise was a practical joke, we could see happiness immediately follow as the person becomes relieved that there is nothing dangerous that requires a response.  This can cause some confusion after the fact as you think about the expressions you just observed.  If surprise is only displayed very briefly and immediately followed by fear, you could find yourself doubting that you ever saw surprise. You might wonder if it was in fact fear the entire time.  You may see surprise and then see the person return to normal if the surprising stimulus is quickly determined to be irrelevant, making you doubt if you ever saw it in the first place.

To make this easier on us, we can make the difference between which possible emotions you observed irrelevant.  Because micro-expressions only last for a split-second, recognizing any emotional response from a person will let you know that whatever you are talking about or observing caused them to react.  If you don’t correctly identify which emotion is all right.  You can come back to that topic in the conversation later and see if you they show any emotion in response to that topic, which will help you narrow down how they feel.

Surprise is one of the 7 Universal Emotions that Dr. Paul Ekman identified in his research that began in the 1950’s and, as we have talked about in previous posts, we will not know what has caused the emotion, just that it is occurring, putting the ball into your court to figure out the root cause of the emotion.

As we break down surprise, the required characteristics are the ones you MUST see to classify it as surprise, while the optional characteristics are the ones that may accompany the required ones.

Required Characteristics

Upper Face:

–       Wrinkles running across the forehead

–       Eyebrows are completely raised

–       Eyes are wide

 Lower Face:

–       Jaw is relaxed

Optional Characteristics

Upper Face:

–       Eyebrows may appear to be arched and/or curved

–       The upper portion of the sclera (the white part of the eye,) may be visible

Lower Face:

–       Jaw may drop open

–       Lips are typically parted, but can be closed

While it is not necessarily one of the expressions used in deception detection, the expression of surprise can provide you with information that will help you in that pursuit.  If you are in Afghanistan and you see an IED explode, I would make the assumption that you would observe an extreme surprise expression on all of those civilians, assuming that they did not know it was there.  Because surprise is only displayed for such a short amount of time, it would likely then be followed by fear on your “baseline” faces.  If you observe someone who was clearly displaying surprise, but held that expression for too long of a time, it is likely not a genuine expression.  If you witnessed someone who did not show surprise immediately following the detonation, but put the expression on their face once they saw everyone else respond that way, it is not a genuine expression.

Where many people slip up when falsely trying to convey an emotion is in the timing of the emotion, meaning it is displayed either too early or too late, or is held for too long.  Applying your observation in that pursuit may help you identify the people who knew about the IED and that it would explode beforehand, and gave themselves away because of their behavior.

Let’s say you are a police officer here in America and are interviewing a suspect in a case.  If the suspect was trying to appear to know more about the case than he really did, surprise may betray his intent.  If you were to tell him that you searched his office and found the guns or drugs in his desk drawer, if he shows a flash of surprise, he may let on that he didn’t know as much as he was pretending to.

As I mentioned above, recognizing the emotion and the expression is just the first step.  Figuring out how to use that information will require a little creativity on your part to understand how it fits into the context.

References for information from this post came from the following books and training: 

Emotions Revealed” Paul Ekman. St Martin’s Press, New York, NY. 2007

(Specifically Chapter 7– Surprise and Fear)

“Telling Lies” Paul Ekman. W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, NY. 2009.

(Specifically Chapter 5 – Facial Clues to Deceit)


Paul Ekman’s Micro-Expression Training Tool – Advanced

Paul Ekman’s Subtle Expression Training Tool

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