Facial Expressions of Emotion

Last week I began to write about recognising emotions in others, this week I will focus specifically on facial expressions. In developing his theories on evaluating truthfulness
and credibility, Paul Ekman, in common with many others concentrated on a set of seven universal emotions.

The seven emotions are; happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt and surprise.

This same set of emotions can be triggered off involuntarily under some circumstances and may be very fleeting. The fleeting version of this expression is called a micro-expression and can be expressed in less than a quarter of a second.

Ekman’s research suggests that these emotions have evolved as survival and/or social signals that are universal and expressed across cultures.

To fully understand the study of facial expression it is worth including some definitions here. A macro-expression is a clear expression of emotion with little or no concealment.  A micro-expression is the same expression displayed for the briefest of moments and is typically about concealment of emotion. Finally, subtle emotions may involve just one muscle being activated possibly at the start of an expression and may lead to the person suppressing or masking the display.

For each of the seven emotions I will now provide a brief description of the display signals.

  • Surprise – Entire eyebrow is pulled up, eyelids are also pulled up and mouth hangs open. Surprise is triggered by sudden, unexpected movement or sounds.
  • Fear – Eyebrows are pulled up and together (less rounded than surprise), pulling up of upper eyelids and mouth is stretched sideways. As might be expected it is triggered by perceived threats of harm.
  • Sadness – The inner corner of eyebrows are raised (this is hard to fake), eyelids are loose and lip corners are turned down. The trigger is loss of a valued person or object.
  • Happiness – The outer eyes tighten producing crows feet, lip corners are pulled up towards the temples. The trigger is quite simply pleasure.
  • Disgust – The eyebrows are pulled down and the nose wrinkled, the upper lip is pulled up and the lips are loose. The trigger is something that is perceived as offensive.
  • Contempt – The eyes are more neutral but the lip corner is pulled up and to one side only. This is the only one of the seven that has a unilateral indicator as the norm. It is triggered by immoral action.
  • Anger – The eyebrows are pulled down while  the upper and lower lids are pulled up, the margins or the lips are rolled in, sometimes lips tighten and the chin boss is up or thrust.

Many people can recognise the above definitions easily yet for others there can be confusion. The confusion may be a pattern of mis-interpreting one or two emotions leading to relationship issues of one kind or another.

Emotional intelligences tests such as the MSCEIT measure as part of the model the differences in our ability to recognise emotions.

In discussion with David Caruso, one of the developers of the MSCEIT he explained to me that there is some disagreement about whether or not emotional intelligence can be improved or whether it is innate. My feeling is that it can be improved using skills for disciplines such as NLP and the ETAC training provided by Paul Ekman’s work. What do you think?

If you are curious about your emotional intelligence rating contact me direct for details on how you can take the MSCEIT psychometric.


I will be presenting a short workshop on recognising emotions based evaluating truthfulness for the CIPD in September. If you would like more information click on the link below.


Also in September we will be running our next NLP Practitioner. I recommend this training to anyone wanting to improve their ability to read other people’s emotions and also as a way of managing your own. The link below gives more information of this course.


Next week we will explore expressing emotions appropriately. I will be making links to
assertiveness training, relationship communication and more.

About Melody @ GWizlearning

Melody spent fourteen years gathering experience of the business world working in banking, telecommunications and the public sector before co-founding The GWiz Learning Partnership in 1993. Melody has a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology, a degree in Psychology and a diploma in Psychotherapy. She is an NLP Master Trainer which allows her to run NLP Practitioner, NLP Master Practitioner and NLP Trainer Training courses certified by the Positive School of Intrinsic Neuro-Linguistc Psychology. She is also a qualified Myers Briggs practitioner and EI practitioner and added to all this is five years Transactional Analysis training, meaning she is able to help organisations access the hidden potential in their staff. She is also in demand for her work in transforming average or even troubled teams into high performers. Melody is a visiting lecturer at University of East London, teaching "Wellbeing and Positive Psychology" to undergraduates. Additionally, she is a member of the CIPD and is ILM accredited. Melody's interests are many and varied. She has a keen interest in personal development, canine and wolf psychology, conservation, movies and running. She also enjoys western horse riding, walking the GWiz dogs, nature watching and stage combat (particularly sword fighting).
This entry was posted in Emotional Awareness, Emotional Intelligence, Life in General, NLP, Perception, Personal Development, Sensory Acuity and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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