Facial Expressions - Emotions and Feelings

What Facial Expressions Tell Us

Reading the emotions from someone else's face is not as easy as you may think.
Reading the emotions from someone else's face is not as easy as you may think. | Source

Faces and Emotions

People have many different facial muscles that are devoted to showing how we feel. Through our facial expressions we communicate emotional nuances. Just think about how many different smiles there are. A very happy smile involves many facial muscles from our lips to our eyes. It is interesting to note that we can control our mouth, but we can’t control our eye muscles.

Facial expressions are a form of social communication, and an emotional response. Part of our facial reaction is an involuntary reaction, and part is a socially acceptable response.

When we have an emotion, there is the feeling and there also is the physiological reaction.

  • We often look at a person’s face and see their most prominent feature. We describe a person by their eye and hair color. We often remember a person’s face better than their personality traits.

To gorillas, apes, and chimpanzees, eye gaze is as important to these primates, as it is to us.

When we look at someone, we need to know where the other person is looking. We usually feel uneasy talking to someone who is wearing dark sunglasses.

What Our Facial Expressions Tell Us

When we are trying to figure out what a person is looking at, we look for contextual cues too. We look at the position of the face, the direction they are looking and the position of their head.

Psychological research has shown that there are seven universal facial expressions that respond to emotions of:

  • disgust

  • sadness

  • happiness

  • anger

  • surprise

  • fear

  • contempt

These basic emotions are related to certain universal facial expressions.

We can pick up that a person is angry by their eyebrows pulled down, eyelids may be pulled up, the lips may be pursed and tense looking.

Fear is shown on the face by the eyebrows being pulled up and closer together, the upper eyelids are pulled up, and the lips may be stretched out.

When a person’s face shows disgust, the eyebrows are usually pulled down, the nose is wrinkled, the upper lip is pulled up, and the mouth may be slightly open.

Contempt can be seen in the eyes looking neutral, but a corner of the lip is pulled up and back on one side. The facial expression of contempt is usually only on one side of the face.

A happy face will show the muscles around the eyes tightened and our eyes are wrinkled. The cheeks are raised, and the corner of the lips are raised diagonally.

A person’s face looks sad when the inner corners of their eyebrows are raised, their eyelids are loose and the corner of the lips are pulled down.

We show surprise in our facial expression by our eyebrows and eyelids being pulled up, and our mouth is usually open.

If you notice only two of these emotions are positive. The idea that there are universal facial expressions regarding emotions is an important psychological breakthrough.

It was Charles Darwin in 1872, who originally suggested that people have universal facial expressions. This thinking became a major part of his theory of evolution. Darwin believed that our emotions and expressing them is biologically based and it can be seen in species that share common ancestors.

There are other theorists who believed facial expressions are more influenced by culture.


Universal Emotions on Faces

Seven universal facial expressions
Seven universal facial expressions | Source

Can We Really Hide Our Emotions?

A Princeton professor, Silvan Tomkins conducted many studies that have shown emotions are the basis of human motivation and the our emotions are centered in our facial expressions. His Universality Studies have proved that people in different parts of the world, and from different cultures still elicited the same facial expressions when shown movies that spurred emotions. Tomkins believed that emotions are clues that could uncover much about a person. His studies have been replicated many times over many decades and continually show the same results.


Even people who are blind have the same facial expressions as sighted people. We are born with these facial expressions, because the same facial muscles that exist in adults, exists in infants. Non human primates such as chimpanzees have also shown these same universal facial expressions



Macroexpressions and Microexpressions

By nature, we are social creatures and the need to detect emotions is innate.Science has discovered some important aspects of this. In addition to the universal expressions, we also have what researchers call microexpressions.


Emotions expressed facially usually last between a half a second and as long as four seconds. These involve the entire face and are known as macroexpressions. We show these to people we are closest to, our family and friends, and when we are by ourselves. Macroexpressions are easy to see when you know what you are looking for.


Microexpressions are seen on and then off the face in as little as 1/30th of a second. They occur so quickly, it is easy to miss them. Microexpressions are usually signs of hidden emotions. They happen so fast that most of us don’t pick them up, as they are happening. Darwin came up with the idea that microexpressions exist. He believed we can’t control these, even if a person wants to. Science has come to understand that there are two neural pathways that have to do with our facial expressions. Each comes from a different part of the brain. The pyramidal tract controls our voluntary facial actions and sits in the cortical motor strip. The extrapyramidal tract is where our involuntary expressions of emotions originates and it sits in the subcortical areas of the brain.


When there are times that people are trying to not show their emotions, they activate both systems to control their emotions, and microexpressions will be released.


In 1966, two researchers, Haggard and Isaacs were able to see this while they looked at films of people in psychotherapy session in slow motion.

Emotions are elicited spontaneously. In 2008, Dr Leanne ten Brinke showed that microexpressions could be seen when people were trying to cover up their true emotional expressions. In this study, the faces of 52 people were analyzed by researchers. Each of the people made emotional pleas about finding a missing relative. Half of the people were lying. They studied 23,000 frames of video across several countries around the world. The researchers looked for what they called “emotional leakage”. Their facial muscles were analyzed and it was shown that it was harder for people to control their facial expressions during stressful events. The research study, which was conducted at University’s Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and Law, found that emotions were leaked because of the unconscious thoughts and actions. Those who were deceiving their audience raised their forehead muscles, making them look more surprised. The muscles around their mouth also caused them to lift their lips, forming more of a smile. The truthful pleaders showed more of a frown and a furrow of their brow, indicating more of a distressed look. As the researchers analyzed the faces frame by frame, they were able to see that the people who were genuinely looking for their loved one showed real distresson their faces, a look that was unable to be replicated by those who were lying. Even with this knowledge, it is very difficult to tell when we are being deceived just by looking at facial expressions.

Yet, there is still great importance that is attached to reading facial expressions. It is important to read the facial expressions of people in order to develop a rapport, gain trust, and bond with someone else. We try to ascertain the credibility of others, evaluate how truthful they are, and make assessments about how they may try to deceive us. This is the basis for forming a relationship, cooperation, and to negotiate with others.


Take This Poll

Are You Able to Read People's Facial Expressions Accurately

  • Always
  • Sometimes
  • Never
See results without voting

Macro and Microexpressions

Understanding facial expressions can give you an insight into what a person is really feeling.
Understanding facial expressions can give you an insight into what a person is really feeling. | Source

Reading a Person's Facial Expressions

No matter what profession you are in, reading facial expressions is integral to conducting better business. A doctor can interact more effectively with their patients. A teacher can pick up the emotions of their students and detect if their lessons are being absorbed adequately. Executives can detect burnout among their staff and improve their productivity. Sales people can create a better negotiating environment to better meet the needs of their customers. Parents, spouses, and friends can build better relationships when they learn to read emotions better.

When people lie, they may get more emotional, perhaps for fear of getting caught, or because they are filled with guilt and shame, or because they feel emotions for successfully getting away with the lie.

We are not able to fully control the muscles of our face, it is not completely under conscious control. Some of our facial muscles may betray the feelings that the person is trying to conceal.

Facial expressions tell more of the truth than words do. It takes a lot of training to pick up macro and microexpressions. Being able to pick up subtle expressions when a person is beginning to feel an emotion, and their response is not as highly guarded, can tell a person much about what the other person is really feeling. It can be very helpful to detect deception.

Most of us are not very skilled at reading microexpressions, even though reading facial expressions is hardwired in us and a definite part of our evolutionary history. The two easiest expressions to see are happiness and surprise. It is much harder for us to pick up negative emotions in the face of another person.

It also can be an interference in interacting with someone else, if we concentrate too much on the nonverbal cues and subtle expressions of someone else. However, the ability to uncover basic emotions by interpreting facial expressions can also give us important understandings about them. One of the best ways to detect a person’s true emotions is by observing their facial expressions and body language.

More by this Author


Comments 4 comments

sarifearnbd profile image

sarifearnbd 3 years ago from Bangladesh

I love your words. Lots of valuable information. Voted Up and more.


mylindaelliott profile image

mylindaelliott 3 years ago from Louisiana

It always surprises me at how well other people can read facial expressions. Good article.


SandCastles 3 years ago

Often facial expression are misinterpreted; people are too confident in 'knowing' what a person is really thinking by their facial expressions. People with Asperger's syndrome can have a 'flat effect' expression and some people assume they have an attitude problem. They often hear, "Get that look off your face". A person should never play expert and tell another person what they are 'really' feeling; they could be way off.


musiclover 2 years ago

I AM SO SICK OF PEOPLE MISINTERPRETING MY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS! Sometimes they think I am giving them dirty looks when I am only thinking about something that has absolutely nothing that has to do with them.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working