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7 Major Facial Expression Categories Expose the Truth


43 individual facial muscles can create more than 10,000 human expressions.  Certain facial expressions are associated with particular human emotions.  A self-conscious look of fear, anger, or happiness can reveal more than a lie detector.  Facial expressions across the globe fall roughly into seven categories.









Happy expressions are universally and easily recognized, and are interpreted as conveying messages related to enjoyment, pleasure, a positive disposition, and friendliness.  Examples of happy expressions are the easiest of all emotions to find in photographs, and are readily produced by people on demand in the absence of any emotion.  In fact, happy expressions may be practiced behaviors because they are used so often to hide other emotions and deceive or manipulate other people.  Consider this point when viewing invariably smiling political figures and other celebrities on television.  Detecting genuine happy expressions may be as valuable as producing good simulations.  Some of the differences in genuine versus false smiles are shown in the action of zygomatic major in

The expression for happiness involves raising the lip corners, raising and wrinkling cheeks, and narrowing eyelids, producing "crow's feet" (wrinkles in the corners of the eyes).

The corners of the mouth lift in a smile.  As the eyelids tighten, the cheeks rise and the outside corners of the brows pull down.






Sad expressions are often conceived as opposite to happy ones, but this view is too simple, although the action of the mouth corners is opposite.  Sad expressions convey messages related to loss, bereavement, discomfort, pain, helplessness, etc.  Until recently, American culture contained a strong censure against public displays of sadness by men, which may account for the relative ease of finding pictures of sad expressions on female faces.  A common sense view, shared by many psychologists, is that sad emotion faces are lower intensity forms of crying faces, which can be observed early in newborns, but differences noted between these two expressions challenge this view, though both are related to distress.  Although weeping and tears are a common concomitant of sad expressions, tears are not indicative of any particular emotion, as in tears of joy.

This expression features narrowed eyes, eyebrows brought together, a down-turned mouth, and a pulling up or bunching of the chin.

The eyelids droop as the inner corners of the brows rise and, in extreme sadness, draw together.  The corners of the lips pull down, and the lower lip may push up in a pout.






Anger expressions are seen increasingly often in modern society, as daily stresses and frustrations underlying anger seem to increase, but the expectation of reprisals decrease with the higher sense of personal security.  Anger is a primary concomitant of interpersonal aggression, and its expression conveys messages about hostility, opposition, and potential attack.  Anger is a common response to anger expressions, thus creating a positive feedback loop and increasing the likelihood of dangerous conflict.  Until recent times, a cultural prohibition on expression of anger by women, particularly uncontrolled rage expressions, created a distribution of anger expressions that differed between the sexes.  The uncontrolled expression of rage exerts a toxic effect on the angry person, and chronic anger seems associated with certain patterns of behavior that correspond to unhealthy outcomes, such as Type A behavior.  Although frequently associated with violence and destruction, anger is probably the most socially constructive emotion as it often underlies the efforts of individuals to shape societies into better, more just environments, and to resist the imposition of injustice and tyranny.

Anger involves lowered eyebrows, a wrinkled forehead, tensed eyelids and tensed lips.

Both the lower and upper eyelids tighten as the brows lower and draw together.  Intense anger raises the upper eyelids as well.  The jaw thrusts forward, the lips press together, and the lower lip may push up a little.







Fear expressions are not often seen in societies where good personal security is typical, because the imminent possibility of personal destruction, from interpersonal violence or impersonal dangers, is the primary elicitor of fear.  Fear expressions convey information about imminent danger, a nearby threat, a disposition to flee, or likelihood of bodily harm.  The specific objects that can elicit fear for any individual are varied.  The experience of fear has an extremely negative felt quality, and is reduced, along with the bodily concomitants, when the threat has been avoided or has passed.  Organization of behavior and cognitive functions are adversely affected during fear, as escape becomes the peremptory goal.  Anxiety is related to fear, and may involve some of the same bodily responses, but is a longer-term mood and the elicitors are not as immediate.  Both are associated with unhealthy physical effects if prolonged.

In fear, the mouth and eyes are open, eyebrows are raised and nostrils are sometimes flared.

The eyes widen and the upper lids rise, as in surprise, but the brows draw together.  The lips stretch horizontally.






Disgust expressions are often part of the body's responses to objects that are revolting and nauseating, such as rotting flesh, fecal matter and insects in food, or other offensive materials that are rejected as suitable to eat.  Obnoxious smells are effective in eliciting disgust reactions.  Disgust expressions are often displayed as a commentary on many other events and people that generate adverse reactions, but have nothing to do with the primal origin of disgust as a rejection of possible foodstuffs.

A look of disgust includes nose scrunching, raising of the upper lip, downcast eyebrows and narrowed eyes.

The nose wrinkles and the upper lip raises while the lower lip protrudes.






This is the only expression that appears on just one side of the face: One half of the upper lip tightens upward.






Surprise expressions are fleeting, and difficult to detect or record in real time.  They almost always occur in response to events that are unanticipated, and they convey messages about something being unexpected, sudden, novel, or amazing.  The brief surprise expression is often followed by other expressions that reveal emotion in response to the surprise feeling or to the object of surprise, emotions such as happiness or fear.  For example, most of us have been surprised, perhaps intentionally, by people who appear suddenly or do something unexpected ("to scare you"), and elicit surprise, but if the person is a friend, a typical after-emotion is happiness; but if a stranger, fear.  A surprise seems to act like a reset switch that shifts our attention.  Surprise expressions occur far less often than people are disposed to say, "that surprises me," etc., because in most cases, such phrases indicate a simile, not an emotion. Nevertheless, intellectual insights can elicit actual felt surprise and may spur scholarly achievements.  Surprise is to be distinguished from startle, and their expressions are quite different.

Surprise appears with a dropped jaw, relaxed lips and mouth, widened eyes and slightly raised eyelids and eyebrows.

The upper eyelids and brows rise, and the jaw drops open.

Other Emotion Expressions And Related Expressions

Some psychologists have differentiated other emotions and their expressions from those mentioned above.  These other emotion or related expressions include contempt, shame, and startle.


Contempt is related to disgust, and involves some of the same actions, but differs from it, in part, because its elicitors are different and its actions are more asymmetrical.



Shame also has a relation to disgust according to some psychologists, but recent evidence suggests it may have a distinct expression.



Most psychologists consider startle to be different from any human emotions, more like a reflex to intense sudden stimulation.  The startle expression is unique.



There could be specific expressions for contentment, excitement, pride, relief, guilt, and shame, but they have yet to be delineated.  If you force your face to look sad or angry, the rest of your body will react as well, and you may involuntarily begin to feel those emotions.  A look of anger will make your heart speed up and your blood vessels dilate until your skin turns red; a look of fear can make your hands cold and clammy and your hairs stand on end; a look of disgust can make you nauseated.

Animated Expressions




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