Facial expressions of emotions

Facial expressions of emotions

The face identifies us as unique beings. The interest for researching the face and finding out what we can say just observing it, was present since ancient times. Between 18 and 19 century the science of physiognomy was flourishing, claiming to determine a man’s character just by analyzing and interpreting facial features This pseudo-science never stood the test of time, although recent research proves that some information can be obtained, by analyzing facial features only.

nonverbal communicartion - physiognomy


Modern science discards  physiognomy’s findings. Yet, the gentleman from the picture does not look as the kindest guy in the word, right?




The founder of the modern research regarding facial expressions is considered Charles Darwin who, in the work “Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animal”  published in 1872,  analyzed scientifically the facial expressions. He thought that expressions are universal and belong to the species, their role being to send to the social environment information about the internal state of the person.

An extensive research over facial expressions was made by the psychologist Paul Ekman in 70’.  He catalogued all the human facial expressions, using a numbering system for each group of muscles involved in producing a facial expression. He found that certain emotions are always accompanied with certain facial expressions.

So, what emotions can be expressed on the face? For now, there are still debates regarding the specific emotions that can be expressed, but it has been proved that six emotions can be universally recognized in facial expressions: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, joy and sadness.


Among  all emotions, surprise lasts least amount of time. It happens when something unexpected occurs. Its role is to stop from what are we doing and to redirect our resources toward the stimulus who triggered the surprise. Surprise is neutral (neither negative, nor positive) and usually is followed by other emotion (fear, joy )

Photo 1 – Typical expression of surprise. Maybe was surprised by that wonderful wedding ring?


nonverbal communication - emotion surprise


Fear is a reaction against a stimulus which threat us physically or/and psychologically. Threat must be always present, it can be anticipated also. For instance, if we are thinking that we have an examination to pass, but we have not learned yet for this, we can live the fear by mere anticipation of a bad grade.

Unlike surprise, fear is a negative emotion and can last indefinitely. For this reason is considered the most toxic emotion.

Photo 2 – Typical expression of fear. She forgot the flat iron plugged in?

nonverbal communication - emotion fear


Disgust is an aversion reaction towards an object. It appears when we are next to thing which could harm or intoxicate us. For example, when we are tasting or smelling bad food.  Disgust produces reactions meant to remove the stimulus responsible for disgust.  Disgust may appear also towards a person’s looks, character or deeds. In this case disgust is triggered rather by social and moral standards, than by the innate ability of that person to harm us.

Photo 3 – Typical expression of disgust. I do not recommend to display this expression when your mother-in-law is cooking.


nonverbal communication - emotion disgust


Anger is a mobilization reaction of organism against some thing or event, who affects negatively the subject (physically or psychologically). Anger is a high energy emotion, energy needed to prepare for battle, for aggression.

Photo 4 – Typical expression of anger. You shouldn’t tell her that you  dwelled again, with you comrades in a pub.


nonverbal communication - emotion disgust


Joy is an emotion which appears when something positive happens. Positive means that is a desirable outcome, in accordance with our purposes (whatever are those). Meeting a dear friend, winning the lottery, boss’ illness, all can generate joy.

Photo 5 – Typical expression of joy. Is shopping day?


nonverbal communication - emotion joy



Sadness is an emotion caused by a loss, loss already produced and over whom we don’t have any control. It is a passive affect, our striving to adapt to consequences of loss.

Photo 6 – Typical expression of sadness.


nonverbal communication - emotion sadness


Facial expressions illustrated above are considered prototypes, „pure” forms of emotional expression.  In fact, their look changes according to emotion’s intensity and various socio-cultural norms.  For instance, at a party in the office we won’t display same intensity of emotions as it would be if we would drink with our friends all weekend, till we drop dead. However, most of the time we display facial expressions containing combinations of emotions, not single emotions. It is known that human face can show almost 7000 facial expressions.

The photos were made by actress:


Gabriela Șoltuz

Gabriela Șoltuz


Do you know how good are you in decoding emotions from facial expressions? Take the bellow:

Test emotions from facial expressions

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