Basic emotions and their facial expressions

If you are interested in reading people and recognizing lies, you will sooner or later stumble over how to interpret the facial expressions of the basic emotions.

You might ask, “Wait, why do I need that? I read faces all the time.” And you’re right, most of the time our brain automatically reads the basic emotions of other people, at least the so-called macro-expressions.

Sometimes, however, this ability is subject to errors: you can confuse certain expressions or not recognize them at all. You’ll do better by becoming aware of what those emotions look like on people’s faces.

This ability is also useful if you want to learn to read micro-expressions in people’s faces.

Micro-expressions are fast facial movements that can reveal hidden emotions or even deception.

Because they only last for a fraction of a second, they are notoriously difficult to read, so it’s important to know which facial movements to expect.

Trivia: Did you know that even a horse can read and remember your human facial expressions? When it sees a picture of you that looks angry, it will avoid you the next time it sees your face (Proops et al. 2018)! Makes sense, right? 😉

In the past, researchers have proposed different models of basic emotions.

While these models overlap in some points, such as for example the classification of sadness as a basic emotion, in other respects they are conceptually very different.

Below you can find the basic emotions and their facial expressions after Paul Ekman.

The 7 basic emotions according to Paul Ekman are:

  • sadness
  • anger
  • disgust
  • enjoyment
  • contempt
  • fear
  • surprise

Paul Ekman has created a great interactive emotion atlas that visually depicts different shades of these basic emotions and where you can get lots of background information about each of the basic emotions.

Do you want to know how good you are at reading basic emotions on people’s faces? At the end of this article, you can conduct an online test to check your emotions reading abilities.

The seven basic emotions

The seven basic emotions are universal, meaning you can observe them across all cultures and ages.

Research has shown that even congenital blind people who have never seen these emotions on the faces of other people, spontaneously show the same facial expressions (Matsumoto & Willingham 2009).

These results suggest that the facial expressions of universal emotions may be biologically innate and not learned from the environment through imitation.

Just as you can feel emotions with varying intensity, the facial expressions of emotions differ in their expressive power. The facial expressions can be pronounced or they can be minimal and barely noticeable.


We experience the feeling of sadness in response to loss. From the loss of a loved one to a disappointment in expectations, this loss can take many forms.

By expressing sadness, we signal to others that we need their help and often automatically elicit empathy in others.

basic emotions sadness
Facial expression of sadness. © Ocusfocus |

On the left side you can see a strong expression of sadness on a woman’s face.

In the facial expression of sadness, both corners of the mouth are pulled down. You can see this especially pronounced in the faces of children.

The inner parts of the eyebrows are raised and drawn towards each other, often with vertical wrinkles between them.

The eyelids are relaxed and give the eyes a characteristic triangular shape. The chin muscles can be pulled upwards.

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We usually experience anger, when we feel threatened, treated unfairly or hindered from reaching a goal.

facial expression of anger
Facial expression of anger © master1305 | Envato Elements

Anger is a natural and healthy response to environmental threats. In its essential evolutionary function, it keeps us from being mistreated, injured or even killed.

In the expression of anger, the eyebrows are pulled down, and the eyes bulge, while the lower eyelid moves upwards.

The lips are either tightly compressed, forming a line or opening to show teeth resembling furious teeth clenching in animals. In fact, anger can be found in many non-human animals as well.

For the experience of anger, it does not matter, whether the thread is real or imagined. It helps us to mobilize energy resources to fight the thread successfully.

While fear forces us to freeze or flee from a particular situation, anger gives us the chance to fight it and actively transform the situation. Therefore, in psychotherapeutic approaches, anger is often seen as a powerful catalyst to facilitate change.

It is wise to direct your anger towards problems – not people; to focus your energies on answers – not excuses.W. A. Ward

Nevertheless, anger can be pathologically elevated in a variety of disorders, for instance in impulse control disorder. In these cases, anger is no longer productive but becomes destructive.

When you see anger on another person’s face as a reaction to what you say or do, ask yourself these three essential questions:

  1. Do I make this person feel threatened? If so, how?
  2. Am I hindering them from reaching some goal?
  3. Have I treated them in any way unfairly?


We experience disgust when something is in any way “toxic” to us, be it physical or emotional. To feel disgusted and be able to recognize it on other faces prevents us from being poisoned.

Basic emotions and their facial expressions
Facial expression of disgust. © Viachaslau Rutkouski |

In the expression of disgust, the eyebrows are lowered, and the nose is wrinkled. The eyes are narrowed.

The upper lip is raised, creating two characteristic vertical lines from the sides of the nose to the mouth. These vertical lines together with the wrinkled nose are the most typical features.

As in anger, in disgust, the lips may be closed or open. If they are open, as you can see in this picture, the upper lip takes on a square form.

Please note that facial expressions of disgust are often mistaken for anger, especially when they appear in the face as very fast micro-expressions, as both look strikingly similar in their facial features.

One way to keep them apart, especially if they happen very fast, is that a head movement often accompanies anger, while in disgust the head posture is usually maintained.


Enjoyment or happiness includes many different positive emotions, such as sensory pleasure, compassion, relief, wonderment, arousal, ecstasy, and even something we might consider a more negative emotion, such as “Schadenfreude” (joy over someone else’s misluck).

You can find a beautiful interactive visualization of different states of emotions ordered by their intensity in Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions.

Genuine smile
Genuine smile. © mimagephotography | Envato Elements

Happiness shows on the face by smiling. The facial expression of a smile is defined by both mouth corners pulling up simultaneously (lips open or closed) while the cheeks lift.

This often gives rise to characteristic lines around the mouth and on the sides of the face.

Smiles can be fake. But how do you differentiate a real smile from a fake one?

You can do this by paying close attention to the eyes: in a genuine smile, the muscles in the outer corner of the eye also contract and create small wrinkles around the eyes (crow’s feet).

In the picture here you see a real smile, notice how the cheeks and eyes are involved in the smile.

Also, pay close attention to the timing of the facial movements. A genuine smile comes and goes at a pace that feels natural. A false smile, on the other hand, lingers on the face for much longer than a genuine smile – it almost appears frozen.

But beware: if only one corner of the mouth is pulled up, it is the facial expression of contempt, many people confuse this with a smile!


Of the seven primary emotions, contempt is the only one that is asymmetrical. In contempt, one side of the mouth pulls up, which looks almost like half a smile.

It may or may not come along with a sceptical look (one eyebrow raised, the other lowered) as is seen here in the picture. The eyes may as well stay neutral.

facial expression of contempt
Facial expression of contempt © Igor Golubov |

Thus, the only characteristic feature of contempt is the one-side pulled up lip corner.

People often confuse contempt with a smile and falsely attribute it a positive meaning, albeit it’s the opposite!

Contempt means that you outwardly disrespect the other person and regard yourself as superior.

The facial expression of contempt has very adverse effects on social situations and relationships.

Researchers have found that couples who show the facial expression of contempt in response to what their partner has said have a higher likelihood of being divorced.

Chance to check yourself: Are there any situations in your daily life in which you show the expression of contempt? Who is involved? What thoughts are going through your mind when you express these emotions? And most importantly, how does the other person react to your facial expression of contempt?


Just like anger, fear is a primordial human emotion found in all mammals and many other species. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it is much older than, for example, contempt. Maybe you have heard of the fight-or-flight response of the body.

fear emotion
Facial expression of fear © Ocusfocus |

It relies upon an evolutionary ancient neural circuit in our brain that can respond to a potential threat within milliseconds by fleeing the danger (fear) or fighting it (aggression).

It involves parts of the emotional center of the brain, the amygdala and, most importantly, the periaqueductal gray (PAG) of the midbrain.

Fear lets us foresee any possible danger that threatens our safety, therein it doesn’t matter, whether something is posing an actual threat to our physical existence, or not.

Our species has a vivid imagination, and we might be physically just as scared before holding a talk, as when meeting a hungry tiger in the woods.

In fact, many of our fears today are socially conditioned and imaginary rather than referring to a real danger.

In the facial expression of fear, the upper eyelids are pulled upwards, often exhibiting white space above the iris of the eyes. The eyebrows are pulled up and together.

Horizontal wrinkles appear on the forehead. The mouth can be closed, opened or stretched sideways revealing the teeth.

The facial expression of fear is sometimes confused with the facial expression of surprise, especially when expressed in quick micro-expressions.

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Surprise is a reaction to an unexpected event. Our brains continuously form a model of the world we find ourselves in, trying to predict what will happen next, based on what has happened to us before.

Basic emotions surprise
Facial expression of surprise © Ocusfocus |

When something goes against the predictions of our model, a surprise reaction is triggered, forcing our attention to shift towards the novelty.

To notice a change or novelty in the environment may be a matter of life or death for us. Thus, the emotion of surprise is vital to our survival.

In the facial expression of the surprise, the upper eyelids are pulled up, and the mouth hangs open – the so-called “jaw drop”.

The facial expression of the surprise is sometimes confused with that of fear. However, in surprise the eyebrows are pulled up in a relaxed, arched manner and most times they will not make the forehead wrinkle.

If you have trouble reading the facial expressions of others, try to imitate them on your own face.

How does a certain facial expression make you feel? This could help you understand what the underlying emotion is.

Below you can test your basic emotions reading skills,

Have fun 😃!

Basic emotions and their facial expressions

Test: How well can you read basic emotions?

You may have noticed that the pictures above displayed the basic emotions in an exaggerated way, so that you can better see the underlying facial features.

In real life, it is more difficult to recognize emotions, as not all of the features above are present and they are much more subtle.

Very often you will also find mixtures of different emotions on people’s faces. Below you can test your ability to read basic emotions on faces.


This is a drag and drop matching test: drag each emotion word from the right side onto its corresponding picture on the left side showing the facial expression.

Once you have placed all words on all pictures, you can click the blue “check” button to see your results. By the way, you can enter full-screen-view by clicking the blue arrows.

[h5p id=”5″]


InfoCopyrightScientific sourcesLegal disclaimer

Copyright and legal infos here in the tabs…

Featured image: ID 72000308 © Dmitry Kotin |

This test was created by Marina Winkler, using H5P Drag and Drop (MIT Copyright © 2018 Joubel).

Images used in the test:

Man with beard smiling © mimagephotography |

Beautiful portrait of a surprised little girl © master1305 |

Psychologist talking with teenagers © bialasiewicz |

Troubled youth having therapy © bialasiewicz |

Upset elderly woman explaining © bialasiewicz |

Head And Shoulders Shot Of Upset Girl At Home © monkeybusiness |

Sad man © Chalabala |

Sad girl with friends © bialasiewicz |

Smiling face of young african man © mimagephotography |

Woman with sad face expression © Rawpixel |

ID 69368128 © Photowitch |

ID 35999993 © Oocoskun |

ID 43749027 © Samotrebizan |

ID 81123836 © Studio Grand Ouest |

Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions 

Matsumoto, D., & Willingham, B. (2009). Spontaneous facial expressions of emotion of congenitally and noncongenitally blind individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(1), 1.

Proops, L., Grounds, K., Smith, A. V., & McComb, K. (2018). Animals remember previous facial expressions that specific humans have exhibited. Current Biology.

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