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Emotion and Facial Expression

Neither emotion nor its expression are concepts universally embraced by psychologists. The term "expression" implies the existence of something that is expressed. Some psychologists deny that there is really any specific organic state that corresponds to our naive ideas about human emotions; thus, its expression is a non sequitur. Other psychologists think that the behaviors referenced by the term "expression" are part of an organized emotional response, and thus, the term "expression" captures these behaviors' role less adequately than a reference to it as an aspect of the emotion reaction. Still other psychologists think that facial expressions have primarily a communicative function and convey something about intentions or internal state, and they find the connotation of the term "expression" useful. Some of these theoretical views are discussed briefly on the Theories of Emotion page. Regardless of approach, certain facial expressions are associated with particular human emotions. Research shows that people categorize emotion faces in a similar way across cultures, that similar facial expressions tend to occur in response to particular emotion eliciting events, and that people produce simulations of emotion faces that are characteristic of each specific emotion. Despite some unsettled theoretical implications of these findings, a consensus view is that in studies of human emotions, it is often useful to know what facial expressions correspond to each specific emotion, and the answer is summarized briefly below.

To match a facial expression with an emotion implies knowledge of the categories of human emotions into which expressions can be assigned. For millennia, scholars have speculated about categories of emotion, and recent scientific research has shown that facial expressions can be assigned reliably to about seven categories, though many other categories of human emotions are possible and used by philosophers, scientists, actors, and others concerned with emotion. The recent development of scientific tools for facial analysis, such as the Facial Action Coding System, has facilitated resolving category issues. The most robust categories are discussed in the following paragraphs. This page shows some thumbnails of emotion faces, and there are links to other emotion faces. Click on the thumbnail image for each emotion category to access other facial expression illustrations and facial analysis commentary on the expressive elements of each emotion face.

Happy

smiling facial expressionHappy expressions are universally and easily recognized, and are interpreted as conveying messages related to enjoyment, pleasure, a positive disposition, and friendliness. Examples of happy expressions are the easiest of all emotions to find in photographs, and are readily produced by people on demand in the absence of any emotion. In fact, happy expressions may be practiced behaviors because they are used so often to hide other emotions and deceive or manipulate other people. Consider this point when viewing invariably smiling political figures and other celebrities on television. Detecting genuine happy expressions may be as valuable as producing good simulations. Some of the differences in genuine versus false smiles are shown in the action of zygomatic major in Expression section, and more illustrations are available by clicking the happy thumbnail on the right.

Sad

sad facial expressionSad expressions are often conceived as opposite to happy ones, but this view is too simple, although the action of the mouth corners is opposite. Sad expressions convey messages related to loss, bereavement, discomfort, pain, helplessness, etc. Until recently, American culture contained a strong censure against public displays of sadness by men, which may account for the relative ease of finding pictures of sad expressions on female faces. A common sense view, shared by many psychologists, is that sad emotion faces are lower intensity forms of crying faces, which can be observed early in newborns, but differences noted between these two expressions challenge this view, though both are related to distress. Although weeping and tears are a common concommitant of sad expressions, tears are not indicative of any particular emotion, as in tears of joy.

Anger

Anger expressions are seen increasingly often in modern society, as daily stresses and frustrations underlying anger seem to increase, but the expectation of reprisals decrease with the higher sense of personal security. Anger is a primary concomitant of interpersonal aggression, and its expression conveys messages about hostility, opposition, and potential attack. Anger is a common response to anger expressions, thus creating a positive feedback loop and increasing the likelihood of dangerous conflict. Until recent times, a cultural prohibition on expression of anger by women, particularly uncontrolled rage expressions, created a distribution of anger expressions that differed between the sexes. The uncontrolled expression of rage exerts a toxic effect on the angry person, and chronic anger seems associated with certain patterns of behavior that correspond to unhealthy outcomes, such as Type A behavior. Although frequently associated with violence and destruction, anger is probably the most socially constructive emotion as it often underlies the efforts of individuals to shape societies into better, more just environments, and to resist the imposition of injustice and tyranny.

Fear

blend of distress and fear emotion facesFear expressions are not often seen in societies where good personal security is typical, because the imminent possibility of personal destruction, from interpersonal violence or impersonal dangers, is the primary elicitor of fear. Fear expressions convey information about imminent danger, a nearby threat, a disposition to flee, or likelihood of bodily harm. The specific objects that can elicit fear for any individual are varied. The experience of fear has an extremely negative felt quality, and is reduced, along with the bodily concommitants, when the threat has been avoided or has passed. Organization of behavior and cogitive functions are adversely affected during fear, as escape becomes the peremptory goal. Anxiety is related to fear, and may involve some of the same bodily responses, but is a longer term mood and the elicitors are not as immediate. Both are associated with unhealthy physical effects if prolonged.

Disgust

disgust facial expressionDisgust expressions are often part of the body's responses to objects that are revolting and nauseating, such as rotting flesh, fecal matter and insects in food, or other offensive materials that are rejected as suitable to eat. Obnoxious smells are effective in eliciting disgust reactions. Disgust expressions are often displayed as a commentary on many other events and people that generate adverse reactions, but have nothing to do with the primal origin of disgust as a rejection of possible foodstuffs.

Surprise

surprise one of the human emotions Surprise expressions are fleeting, and difficult to detect or record in real time. They almost always occur in response to events that are unanticipated, and they convey messages about something being unexpected, sudden, novel, or amazing. The brief surprise expression is often followed by other expressions that reveal emotion in response to the surprise feeling or to the object of surprise, emotions such as happiness or fear. For example, most of us have been surprised, perhaps intentionally, by people who appear suddenly or do something unexpected ("to scare you"), and elicit surprise, but if the person is a friend, a typical after-emotion is happiness; but if a stranger, fear. A surprise seems to act like a reset switch that shifts our attention. Surprise expressions occur far less often than people are disposed to say "that surprises me," etc., because in most cases, such phrases indicate a simile, not an emotion. Nevertheless, intellectual insights can elicit actual felt surprise and may spur scholarly achievements. Surprise is to be distinguished from startle, and their expressions are quite different.

Other emotion expressions and related expressions

Some psychologists have differentiated other emotions and their expressions from those mentioned above. These other emotion or related expressions include contempt, shame, and startle. Contempt is related to disgust, and involves some of the same actions, but differs from it, in part, because its elicitors are different and its actions are more asymmetrical. Shame also has a relation to disgust according to some psychologists, but recent evidence suggests it may have a distinct expression. Most psychologists consider startle to be different from any human emotions, more like a reflex to intense sudden stimulation. The startle expression is unique.

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