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In this blog post I briefly describe the seven basic emotions and show you pictures of their respective facial expressions.
How to read facial expressions
The seven basic emotions are universal, that is, they can be observed 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 show the same facial expressions. So we can say that the facial expressions of universal emotions are biologically innate rather than learned from our environment through imitation.
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.
The 7 basic emotions
The feeling of sadness is experienced in response to loss. From loss of a loved one to disappointment of expectations, this loss can take many forms.
The expression of sadness signals to others that we need their consolation or help, and often automatically evokes empathy in others.
In the facial expression of sadness, both corners of the mouth are pulled down while the inner parts of the eyebrows are raised and pulled towards each other, often with vertical wrinkles between them. The eyelids are relaxed and give the eyes a triangular shape.
As emotions can be felt with varying intensity, emotional facial expressions can also vary in their intensity.
They may be as strongly pronounced, as in the image on the right, or they may be very small and barely perceptible.
Anger is usually experienced in response to being prevented from reaching a goal or in response to being treated unfairly, injured or threatened.
In the expression of anger, the eyebrows are pulled down and the eyes bulge. The lower eyelid is pulled 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.
Anger is not always bad. It is a natural and normal response to (perceived, real or imagined) environmental threats. In psychotherapeutic approaches, anger is often seen as a powerful catalyst to facilitate change.
Anger is a strong self-defense mechanism. It shows you that someone or something threatens you, and helps you to gather and focus your energy to fight it. Anger can be considered as a counterpart to fear. While fear forces us to freeze or flee from a particular situation, anger gives us the chance to actively fight it and change the situation.
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.
We experience disgust when something in any way is “toxic” to us, be it physical or emotional. To feel disgust and be able to recognise it on other faces prevents us from being poisoned. A similar facial expression is created when we taste something that we do not like, for example, very bitter or sour.
In the expression of disgust the eyebrows are pulled down and the nose is wrinkled. The upper lip is raised, giving two characteristic vertical lines from the sides of the nose to the mouth. As in anger, in disgust the lips may be closed or open.
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 very similar in their facial features.
One way to keep them apart, especially if they happen very fast, is that anger is often accompanied by a head movement, for example, a single forward nod, while in disgust the head posture is usually maintained.
Enjoyment 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).
Happiness shows on the face by smiling. The facial expression of a smile is defined by both mouth corners simultaneously pulling up (lips open or closed) while the cheeks are raised.
But beware: if only one corner of the mouth is pulled up, it is the facial expression of contempt, many people tend to confuse this with a smile.
Smilies can be faked and that happens quite often. But how do you differentiate a real smile from a fake one? You can do this by paying close attention to the eyes: with a real smile, the muscles in the outer corner of the eye also contract and create small wrinkles around the eyes called “crow’s feet”.
With a fake smile, only the corners of the mouth are pulled upwards, but neither the cheeks nor the eyes contract. In the picture above, you can see a real smile, notice how the cheeks and eyes are involved in the smile. Also, a real smile comes and goes at a pace that feels natural. A false smile, on the other hand, lingers on the face much longer than a real smile – the false smile almost appears frozen on the face.
Of the seven basic emotions, contempt is the only one that is asymmetrical. One side of the mouth is pulled up, almost like half a smile. This is why people often confuse contempt with a smile and falsely attribute it a positive meaning.
The facial expression of contempt has very negative effects on social situations and relationships. Researchers have found that couples who show contempt in response to what their partner has said have a greater chance of being divorced.
Check yourself: Are there situations in your daily life, in which you show the expression of contempt? Which people are involved? What thoughts do you think as you show this emotion? How do others react to your display of contempt?
Just like anger, fear is a primordial human emotion found in all other mammals and many other species. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it is much older than, for example, the emotion of contempt. Maybe you have heard of the fight-or-flight response of our body.
This is an age-old neural circuit in our brain that can respond to a potential threat within milliseconds by fleeing the threat (fear) or fighting it (aggression). It concerns 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. For our human fear it does not actually matter, whether a threat is really posing an actual danger to our physical existence, or not.
Our species has a vivid imagination, and we might be physically just as scared before we hold a talk, as when meeting a hungry tiger in the woods. In fact, many of our fears today are socially conditioned and imaginary in their nature rather than referring to a real danger.
In the facial expression of fear, the upper eyelids are pulled upwards, often exhibiting much 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.
Surprise is a reaction to an unexpected event. Our brains usually 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. If something goes against our predictions or our model, a surprise is triggered, forcing our attention to shift towards the novelty. For example, if you cross the street and have a green pedestrian light, you would expect the cars approaching to slow down.
If for some reason, they don’t, you’ll be surprised and most likely, adrenaline will rush through your body, which will cause you to jump forward. Surprise is vital to our survival.
To notice the novelty of something that does not follow a previously learned rule may be a matter of life or death for us.
In the facial expression of the surprise, the upper eyelids are pulled up and the mouth hangs up – the so-called “jaw drop”. Unlike fear, the eyebrows are pulled up in a relaxed, arched manner, and most times will not make the forehead wrinkle.
The facial expression of the surprise is sometimes confused with the expression of fear.
Below you can test your emotion reading skills,
Have fun 😃!
Test your emotion reading skills