Facial Expressions

Our faces are the most intricate and versatile of all animals with many different functions. We can show others our emotional state, which aids communication with others, providing understanding and intent.

Facial expressions are a nonverbal system, communicating social information to your colleagues, friends, family and strangers. Consider all that can be said with just a facial expression, smile to show happiness or agreement, frown to let someone know you are unhappy, lower your brows to show someone you are angry or frustrated and raise eyebrows to ask a question or emphasize a word.

These are all ways that we purposely manipulate the muscles in our faces to show another person a particular message, thought or feeling. With 43 muscles in the face sat just under the surface of the skin, when moved and manipulated they can form 1000’s of different combinations on our faces. Out of all these combinations 7 of them reflect what are known as universal facial expressions (1), relating to emotions: Happy, Sad, Anger, Fear, Surprise, Contempt and Disgust.

These common facial expressions appear across all humans (and some animals) and were first outlined by Guillaume Duchenne and further elaborated on by Charles Darwin (2). There can be some subtle difference in each facial expression between individuals due to the variety of face shapes, injury or other interactants like drugs. Mostly they appear the same across people all over the world. Below are the 7 expressions and their defining features.

The numbers and labels (action units) on the right side of the image above show the individual muscles movements of each expression, they denote the specific muscles involved and the distinctive features seen on the surface of the face. They are derived from the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) (3), which is a taxonomy used for researching facial expressions published by Dr Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen.

Of course, there are many other facial expressions such as confusion, concentration, and shame for example however these currently do not have any research to support their universality across all societies and cultures.

The Two Types of Facial Expressions

There are two distinct differences in the way a facial expression is generated –

  1. Posed
    Expressions that the sender intends to show for social communication. These expressions are consciously created travelling through the cerebral cortex of our brain, which plays a role in thought, language and consciousness (among other functions). As it passes through our cortex we have control over them, this is where display rules are managed, for example, you would not laugh at a colleague being fired (even if you did not like them).
  2. Emotional
    These types of expressions are fed by innate emotional reactions to stimuli and do not pass through the cerebral cortex, leaving no time for consciousness or awareness, also leading to Microexpressions, which are considered leakage of our true internal emotions before we have time to become aware of the emotion and possible control it in one way or another (we will look at Microexpressions in more detail). This is supported by the universality of emotions and their expressions, as well as studies showing expressions in infants, congenitally blind children and athletes (4).

Why are facial expressions useful?

The ability to read and understand the facial expression of the person you are communicating with provides you with a deeper level of understanding of their point of view and internal state. If used in a constructive way can lead to effective communication, increased likeness, higher emotional intelligence, and better rapport to name just a few benefits (5).

If you notice an expression of sadness (e.g. lip corners pulled down and middle of eyebrows raised) on your co-workers face you then have to consider why that has been displayed, is it due to something you have just said or because they have something else on their mind? In this example, this is where gentle questioning could help you understand and then offer help if appropriate.
Being able to offer help, assistance or show understanding to another person when they have not said anything shows a level of awareness and empathy that others will remember you for.

Alternatively, you can use recognition of facial expressions to give you the upper hand. When negotiating for a business deal or purchasing a new car you can gauge the reactions of the other person from their facial expressions. If you go in with a lowball offer and see disgust on the face of your interlocutor you could consider them to be offended by the number you have put forward, or possibly offended by the aggressiveness in which you presented the offer, either way, you can evaluate where you want to go next in the negotiation.

Looking Deeper at Facial Expressions – Micro Expressions

Facial expression can also show hidden feelings and thoughts, they appear without our awareness, spontaneously and unconsciously, these are known as Micro Facial Expressions or Microexpressions (6). These involuntary facial expressions can occur in less than half a second and due to the person not being aware they are displaying these expressions it provides an insight into their true thoughts and emotions.

Unlike facial expressions used in overt communication, Microexpressions are difficult to fake due to the rapid and unconscious display, they appear quickly before the sender is fully aware and can’t control their emotional reaction. This can make it challenging to notice and recognise them, but with training and practise, it is possible to read others while having a conversation.

Microexpressions are useful in detecting lies and deceit; if the words someone is speaking contradicts the emotions you see in a microexpression you have a contradiction from the controllable communication (words) and the uncontrolled micro facial expressions, which can suggest a lack of credibility with the account/answer they are providing.

Police officer – ‘have you been drinking sir’?
Drunk man – ‘no officer’ *while they flash a microexpression of fear.

The fear microexpression does not match their response, why show fear if they truly have not been drinking? Further questioning is required to understand why that person may be feeling fearful. It could be that they are drunk and do not want to be caught, or possibly have had a bad experience with a police officer in the past, either way, there are hidden emotions which can be picked up on and can help lead you to a clearer understanding of the other person.

Facial expressions also appear as blends of two felt emotions, a feeling of disgust and anger (scorn) may show features of both universal expressions. For example, the lowered brows found in anger and the upper lip raise in the disgust expression.

How to read Facial Expressions and Microexpressions

Learning to read facial expressions accurately can be difficult, recognising Micro Expressions accurately requires training and a lot of practice. You can learn how to spot micro expressions through online training or more in-depth workshops. They provide a background into what triggers the emotions and their expressions as well as focusing them towards your desired outcome, better communication and emotional intelligence or deception detection and behaviour analysis.

After training the key to reading Microexpressions is attentiveness, really focusing on the other person to understand what they are saying and what their face is signalling is an important step in being able to apply these skills within your personal life and work.

As Microexpressions are so quick (less than 0.5 seconds) a tip is to focus softly on the bridge of the persons’ nose and allow your peripheral vision to pick up the lower face and eyebrow movements again this can take practise and there are tools which help develop this skill.

To become an expert in facial expressions FACS is the pinnacle, although aimed at researchers this manual and self taught process breakdown every possible facial movement, allowing you to code any expression you see. There is a test to become a qualified FACS coder. For the vast majority recognising the 7 universal expressions of emotions is enough when accompanied with the other channels of communication. 

What is the future for facial expressions? 

Over the last 5-10 year,s there has been a large increase in research and development of technology in the area of facial expressions. We have seen the use of webcams to analyse emotions of users reactions to online advertising, which has then branched into facial expression recognition in supermarket aisles with shoppers.

Animators such as Pixar and Disney have studied FACS to ensure their characters are as lifelike as possible, conveying a much deeper meaning and affect through accurate facial expressions, this has then spread into video game development and now moving into artificial Intelligent characters and robots through machine learning.

Large established recruitment companies and fresh start-ups are looking at new ways to make the global recruitment of staff more efficient and trustworthy. Potential employees send in a recorded video of themselves answering structured questions, which is then analysed using expression detection software, with the focus to outline specific traits and credibility of the candidate.

Airports, military and security firms are researching the use of cameras and software to pair what we know about facial expressions and deception to aid with investigative interviewing and primary detection of potential suspects in large, busy areas.

The current status of this technology is far from fully function and reliable, the ability for these algorithms and hardware is getting better but the challenge is the underlying motives and behaviours for the tech picking up certain expressions. A high-tech camera may pick up an airline traveller in a security line showing similar features as an expression of fear but the software can be fooled easily, is it a grimace? Awkward smile? Even if the fear expression detected is accurate there is no shortcuts, the traveller may be fearful of being caught with mal-intent but may also be fearful of flying, the signs are the same, it’s the follow up questioning and good behaviour analysis and deception detection that can make an officer confident of a person’s intent.


Although expressions and Microexpressions are extremely useful in understanding others and better communication they are not the complete picture if you are looking to excel or increase your deception detection. They need to be part of a further in-depth knowledge of verbal and nonverbal communication, which can include voice, verbal style, verbal content, body language and psychophysiology. These channels all lead to understanding behaviour of others which you can direct towards your desired outcome, be that strengthening a relationship or investigating credibility.

Further Information


(4) –  Rinn, William E. (1984). “The Neuropsychology of Facial Expression: A Review of the Neurological and Psychological Mechanisms for Producing Facial Expressions”. Psychological Bulletin. American Psychological Association, Inc. 95 (1): 52–77. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.95.1.52.

Jordan Lansley
Article by Jordan Lansley

Specialist in understanding the intricacies of human behaviour and interaction. Through subtle and unconscious communication channels in order to better understand others.

Training & development in the social sciences

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