The Seven Universal Facial Expressions

The Seven Universal Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are the voluntary and involuntary movements that occur when one or more of the 43 facial muscles on the face are engaged.

They are a rich source of non-verbal communication and display a vast amount of emotional and cognitive information.

The 7 Universal Facial Expressions:

It is widely supported within the scientific community that there are seven basic emotions, each with their own unique and distinctive facial expressions.

These seven emotions are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Surprise.

Back in the late 1800’s Charles Darwin was the first person to suggest that facial expressions of emotion are the same wherever you go in the world, that they are innate. At the time, the majority of the scientific community disagreed with this theory.

It wasn’t until the late 20th century when Dr. Paul Ekman and his team did their research on the universality of facial expressions, that we began to see substantial evidence that Charles Darwin’s theory was indeed, correct.

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Dr. Ekman’s Early Research:

When Dr. Ekman began researching facial expressions of emotions across cultures, he initially had the opposite view to Charles Darwin. Ekman believed that expressions were socially learned, and therefore culturally variable. For instance, if you were born and raised in America, you would display very different facial expressions of emotion than if you grew up in Asia.

To finally put the argument to bed, Dr. Ekman set out on a research quest that would take him around the world to study the facial expressions of many different cultures to see if Darwin’s universality argument could be countered.

The first cultures Ekman studied were based in the following countries – Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and the United States.

Dr. Ekman’s initial study consisted of showing these groups of people photographs of individuals displaying different facial expressions of emotion. He would then ask the groups to judge what emotion they thought was being displayed in each photograph. The vast majority of the individuals from the five cultures agreed.

While this was a big step towards Darwin’s view that expressions of emotion are universal, Ekman was not fully convinced. He asked – ‘What if these five cultures had all grown up watching the same movies and tv shows’? Could it be that the reason they all agree is they have learned these expressions from the same place? Could the reason for their agreement be their similar background and experiences? Learned from media or actors for example?

To test this theory, Ekman came up with a solution. Why not go and find a culture that has been completely isolated from the rest of the world. No TV, no magazines, no tourists? If facial expressions of emotion were learned from parents and teachers, then surely a stone-aged tribe would have an entirely different way of communicating emotion than those in western societies?

This lead Ekman to the highlands of Papua New Guinea to meet a remote, primitive tribe called the Fore. If the Fore tribe displayed and interpreted the facial expression of emotion the same as their western counterparts, we would have substantial evidence of the universality of facial expressions.

Equipped with a few simple stories and images of facial expressions, Ekman headed into the remote camp and asked each of the tribesmen/women to match a story to an expression.

For instance, he prompted them with:

  • “the enemy approaches” (he is angry and about to fight)
  • “friends have come” (and he is happy)
  • “a child has died” (and he is sad).

The  tribesmen/women would then point to a photograph from a western face that they felt would most likely be displayed on the face of the person in the story. This was later reversed for westerners judging the Papua New Guinea faces.

Try it yourself. Read each of the scenarios above, and then pick the picture below that you think best illustrates what would be on the face of the person in the story.

happy facial expressionsAngry facial expressionsSad facial expressions

Have you done it?…

If you thought, PHOTO 1 – belongs to the friend story. PHOTO 2 – the fight story, and PHOTO 3 – the child story, then you agree with most of those involved in the study.

Since Ekman’s pioneering study with the Fore tribe in 1969, there have been countless other studies supporting his findings, and it is now widely supported in the scientific community that Darwin was right and facial expressions of felt emotions are indeed universal.

2 thoughts on “The Seven Universal Facial Expressions

  1. There are so many more than just 7. What about concern, the look of concentration, the lost in thought look, puzzled, confused. Strange that these are not recognised.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for raising this. You are right! There are many more expressions. In this piece, however, we have focused specifically on universal expressions. These are the ones where there is sound scientific evidence that these expressions are displayed the same by every human, no matter the culture.

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