Seven Universal Facial Expressions: Exploring the Basics of Human Emotion

Alicja Kowalczewska, PhD
April 25, 2024

A lot can be said about human emotions. After all, we all have them – even if we sometimes wish we did not. The world of emotions is a vast and complex one that has fascinated philosophers, psychologists, and other scholars for centuries. For Sartre, “the emotion is a specific manner of apprehending the world” (Sartre, 1971, p. 57). This insight can be our cue to notice that emotions never come out of thin air – they are always a response to a stimulus, have an object, and need a trigger. This response is often instinctual and kicks in before reflective thinking and cognition can curb it. Although particular triggers can differ, also depending on cultural conditioning, emotional expressions, at least with regard to 7 basic emotions – don’t. And this is where the subject of this article – the expression of emotions and how it can be studied – comes into play.

Lie to Me*

Emotions can be expressed in a number of ways – one of them is facial expressions. Now, you might have seen the popular TV series Lie to Me* starring Tim Roth as the fictional Dr Cal Lightman, a specialist in applied psychology who assists in various investigations by interpreting micro expressions through FACS (Facial Action Coding System) and body language. If you haven’t seen it – trust me, it is a very engaging series. It shows how facial expressions of emotions can betray one’s true feelings and motives. Each denouement is accompanied by a collage of photos of various public personas caught in a lie – suddenly featuring a facial expression that denudes their true emotions. And although it may at times seem far-fetched – who wouldn’t want to think that noticing someone’s raised brow or a wrinkle can help us decode a hidden truth – the series is based on real-life and scientifically proven research, that of Paul Ekman, to be exact. How does it work? Let us investigate.

Universal Facial Expressions of Emotion

Although there are various theories of emotion, the one of interest to us will be the applied study of universal facial expressions of emotion. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, its forefather is Charles Darwin – while he is mostly known for his evolutionary theory, focusing on how species biologically evolved through natural selection, it is not his only contribution to pushing the frontier of science. Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was a pioneering emotion theory that saw “the emotions as separate discrete entities, such as anger, fear, disgust, etc.” (Ekman, 2009).

This line of thought was later picked up and explored by – you have guessed it – Paul Ekman, an American psychologist whose lifelong work Lie to Me* was based on, and who also served as a scientific advisor to the series.

Ekman began his studies – continued till this day – already in the 1950s, throughout the years exploring facial expressions, body movements, cross-cultural non-verbal behaviour, micro expressions – the list goes on. As a result of his research in Papua New Guinea, he found evidence that facial expressions are universal, that is: not dependent on particular cultural conditioning. His results were described in a number of publications, including the seminal 1970 article “Universal Face Expressions of Emotions.” Yet, his work does not only comprise theory – in 1978 together with W. Friesen he developed FACS, Facial Action Coding System, a tool used to measure facial movements, later updated and remaining in use to this day, also by RealEye.

The Theory of Basic Emotions

Ekman’s findings led him to propose the theory of basic emotions – universal across cultures and biologically determined. Initially, he observed six basic emotions. Those emotions included happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear and anger. Later, he widened the scope to include contempt, therefore eventually proposing seven basic emotions. Although there are other theories of basic emotions – including that of Robert Plutchik, who proposed distinguishing eight basic emotions – Ekman’s proposal remains the most influential one. What corresponds with seven universal emotions are seven universal facial expressions. In Unmasking the Face Ekman and Friesen describe how physiology can help us distinguish them. Let us therefore have a look at emotion recognition – what kinds of facial expressions can possibly relay particular emotions?

Anger can be denoted by “lowered and drawn together” eyebrows, tensed eyelids, and “tightly pressed together or parted in a square shape” lips. What is important, however, is that all these three facial areas must show “distinctive changes” for an expression to denote anger (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 82-92).

Disgust – the most characteristic of disgust is the wrinkled nose and raised upper lip, with the lower lip raised or lowered (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 68-71).

Fear – emotions of fear can be visible i.e. in the fear brow when the eyebrows are raised and straightened or drawn together. The lower lid can be raised or tensed, and lips stretched back or tensed (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 50-60).

Surprise is described as “the briefest emotion.” Its signs can include high and curved eyebrows, dropped jaw, and wide-opened eyes, with “the lower eyelids relaxed and the upper eyelids raised” (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 37-43).

Happiness is one of the easiest expressions to be recognised. The most characteristic can be a smile or a grin. Happy facial expressions also include various wrinkle lines – e.g. naso-labial folds or crow’s feet around the eyes (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 103-107).

Sadness also has “a distinctive appearance in each of the three facial areas,” with inner corners of the eyebrows raised, sometimes drawn together; drawn up inner corner of the upper eyelid, sometimes raised lower eyelid; and drawn down corners of the lips (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 116-122).

Contempt, unlike disgust, “is only experienced about people or the actions of people, but not about tastes, smells, or touches” and “is shown by a variation of on the closed-lips disgust mouth” (Ekman & Friesen, 2003, p. 67-71).

It is worth noting that we can distinguish between basic and complex emotions. Core emotions can be integrative – they can combine and interact with each other, giving rise to more complex emotions, such as e.g. jealousy, often a mix of anger, fear, or sadness. Complex emotions can also include secondary emotions – those that emerge as an outcome of reworking primary emotions through cognitive processes, also influenced by factors such as response to stress and even personality and social psychology. So, whilst basic emotions share many easily identified traits, they can be seen as building blocks for more complex emotions.

Measuring Attention and Emotions

Are you curious to see how emotions can be recognised through the study of facial features but the perspective of staring at people and trying to guess it on your own seems to simply mortify you? Fear not! Nowadays you have at your disposal brilliant and easy-to-use tools utilising facial coding that can be used online through webcams. The solution offered by RealEye eye tracker focuses on including the basic coding features: happy, surprised, and neutral. The latter can be especially important – individual calibration can help to distinguish a given participant’s neutral, resting face from affective expression. This allows for identifying a particular emotional state with high accuracy, avoiding potential errors. Keen to know more? Just try it! As rightly noticed in an anonymous artwork: “Feelings are a very difficult business. So outsource them.”


Baum, Samuel, creator. Lie to Me*. Image Television/Pagoda Pictures/Samuel Baum Productions/MiddKid Productions, 20th Century Fox Television. 2009. Fox.

Ekman, Paul and Wallace V. Friesen. (2003). Unmasking the Face. A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Cues. Malor Books.

Ekman, Paul. (1970). Universal Facial Expressions of Emotions. California Mental Health Research Digest, 8(4), 151-158.

Ekman, Paul. (2003). Emotions Revealed. Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. Times Books.

Ekman, Paul. “Darwin's contributions to our understanding of emotional expressions.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences vol. 364,1535 (2009): 3449-51. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0189

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1971). Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. Methuen & Co Ltd.

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