Emotions and facial expressions: Fear

The expression for fear I think resembles that of surprise in many ways although it is a very different expression in all.


The eyebrows are raised and the eyes are open wide. But notice how much more tensed this expression is than that of suprise. And although the eyebrows are raised, they are flatter than those suprise eyebrows.

I usually look at the eyebrows becuase we “talk” with them so often. Here is a eyebrow guide for 3 of the expressions that we’ve covered so far.

Paul Ekman uses the picture of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in his book. Look closer at the man in the bright suit who is in charge of Oswald when he is shot.The expression is a mix of fear and anger. Fear in the lower part of the face and angry eyes. Oswald is clearly in pain.

And the clues to fear in the expression:

Emotions and facial expressions: Joy

There are smiles and then there are smiles! And usually we can tell the difference between them.

Look at the two smiles of Julia Roberts below:

Or of Mr Paul Ekman himself:

What does your gut feeling tell you?

Yes, one of the smiles is a fake.

Look at the picture of Hillary Clinton below:

Look at the eyes because that is where you can really tell if the smile is genuine or not. If the smile is genuine the muscles around the eyes are activated and we get the kind of scarecrow feet as you can see in the second picture of Hillary:

So if you are going to fake your smile: fake it big. When you smile big your cheeks will be pushed up against your eyes and will create some wrinkles for you. There will still be signs of your faking but less than if you fake it small.

And here are the clues to signs of joy:

Emotions and facial expressions: Anger

When we become angry our eyes narrow and we get a hard stare like the man in the photo below.

The mouth can either be open or closed. Usually, when we engage in a physical activity (like Britney bashing at paparazzi with her broken umbrella) the mouth is closed. If we are  speaking (like Judd in the first picture) we have a squarish form of the mouth.

Or in short:

To be certain that someone is angry, the expression must be shown in all parts of the face. Otherwise it is an ambigous expression. In the other universal emotions, it suffices that two parts of the face are engaged.For instance, in the picture below of surprise only the eyebrows and eyes are engaged but it still is clear that it is surprise.


Emotions and facial expressions: Sadness

Humans have about 40 facial muscles. What is interesting is that we do not have active control over all of these muscles. Instead, they are activated by the feeling and we do not do it consciously. For instance, the sad expression (look at those eyebrows!) is very hard to make without the actual feeling.

However, some people can do this but they are few.


When scientists have been studying facial muscles they have used needles with electricity to stimulate the right muscles to form expressions. That’s how hard it is to fake some of them.

The gaze is usually directed downwards in sadness.

And the eye lids can droop a little which gives us a sleepy look

But the look is the same (and again, look at those eyebrows!) regardless who we are:

Emotions and facial expressions: Surprise

Surprise, is the briefest of all universal emotions. Why? Well, we usually go from surprise to something else once we figured out the source of the surprise. So it’ll be a mix of surprise – happy, surprise –anger and so on.

Oprah going from surprise to happiness and maybe a bit of fear

What happens is that we literally drop our jaw. This stretches out the skin of the cheeks and flattening it. The eyebrows go up which can produce lines across the forehead. The eyebrows are high and rounded.

If you want to know how big the surprise is, check the lower part of the face.

Note that only a widened eye can mean that we show an interest (wow!) and can just like the eyebrows be used as a punctuation in what is being discussed.

Emotions and facial expressions: The neutral expression

The first thing we must start with to explore facial expressions is the neutral expression. And what is a neutral expression? It is the expression that we display when we are relaxed. And why does it matter? Well, we must remember that our faces differ in forms and shapes; we all look different. For instance, some may in the neutral expression, appear to display an emotion due to how their face look. For instance, narrow lips and downturned corners of the mouth may erroneously tell you that a person is angry when in fact, it is just a part of their neutral face.

But once we know the neutral face we can take that expression and compare it to other expressions.

What we will do next few posts is to break down each facial expression of a particular emotion and see the details of it. I hope it will help you identify each emotion as it is shown on faces around you.

Each emotion will contain a set of pictures of people showing each basic emotions and just what the facial expressions look like for each emotion.

Picures from Paul Ekman’s book and blog

Emotions and facial expressions

The topic of my lightning talk I did at Avega’s conference was emotions and their respective facial expressions. To go with my lightning talk, I will do a series of posts on this topic where I can go into more details of this topic. I will give you a go through on what these expressions are and what emotions they stand for and some other good-to-know details.

But the best part about this topic is that you already know how to interpret facial expressions and you do it all the time. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you misinterpret one emotion for another. But the most important is to keep looking for the expressions. (Actually, I think that is the hardest part.) Because we usually get lost in ourselves or the discussion that we forget to consciously look for the clues. So stay mindful and observe!

I will start with an introduction to the topic and I will cover each expression in more length and with more examples in the following posts.

So the topic is a set of basic, human emotions and the expressions that we show when we feel these emotions. Did you know that we, as humans, regardless of who we are and our background, display each of these emotions in the same way? Think about it for a while. It doesn’t matter if you are part of tribe that has never had any contact with the rest of the world or if you are a stockbroker in New York, you express some emotions the same way. And when I write the same way, I mean that you literally have the same expression. And yes, it means that if you practice, pay attention to the people around you and know what the emotions look like on their face, you may be able to tell what emotions they have. But you can never read minds. You don’t know the source of the emotion or what the other person is thinking.

Before we go into the expressions, some background. Charles Darwin was one of the first people to research emotion, theorizing that emotions were biologically determined and universal to human culture in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” published in 1872.


However, the more popularized belief during the 1950s was that facial expressions and their meanings were culturally determined through behavioral learning processes. But this was settled once Paul Ekman along with other scientists discovered during the 60s that for some basic emotions, all humans express some emotions in the same way across our faces.

In order to reach this conclusion, Ekman studied expressions in several cultures across different geographical areas. He found that there were cultural differences in what is socially accepted to show publicly. He showed for instance pictures from surgeries and accidents to both Americans and Japanese. On their own, unaccompanied, the tests subjects showed the same facial expressions but when accompanied by others these feelings were masked. Notably, the Japanese masked their negative emotions with a smile.

But Ekman knew that there were still skeptics. What if the expressions had been learned and spread throughout the cultures via television etc? He decided to study facial expressions of people who never had contact with the rest of the world to see if they too had the same expressions. So Ekman spent time with a tribe in New Guinea that previously had no contact with the outside world. And yes, he found the same expressions there too.

And other studies have shown that we are born with these expressions. We do not learn them, they are hardwired. If you are blind, you will display these emotions in the same way as a person who can see, especially for spontaneous emotions.

So which are the emotions that we have universal expressions for you may ask? Well, it is anger, fear, disgust, surprise, joy and sorrow.

The following post will cover each of these emotions along with any other sources of information and examples. I will also include good to know things when dealing with emotions and facial expressions. Enjoy!