Learn to interpret facial expressions – 7 basic emotions

Paul Ekman, the discoverer of the 7 basic emotions, is regarded as the most important pioneer in mimic reading. He found out that there are seven emotions whose facial expressions look the same all over the world. This means that they must obviously be genetically predisposed in humans and are therefore independent of culture. The 7 basic emotions are:

List of the 7 basic emotions after Paul Ekman:

                  1. ANGER
                  2. CONTEMPT
                  3. DISGUST
                  4. FEAR
                  5. HAPPINESS
                  6. SADNESS
                  7. SURPRISE

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7 Basic Emotions - Paul Ekman
7 Basic Emotions – Paul Ekman

The discovery of the 7 basic emotions

Charles Darwin was one of the first persons to scientifically study the relationship between emotions and their expression through body language. He was convinced that all of us carry within us a palette of feelings inherited from our genes. Thus, every person in the world, regardless of culture, has access to the same emotions. For example, it seems that authority figures always have a need to distance themselves from their fellow human beings the more powerful they become. Each chief or emperor had his own insignia of power, sat on an elevated throne, or had a very extensive area into which other people were not allowed to invade. People are emotionally very similar. The feeling of jealousy is familiar to everyone, from Africans to Asians to South Americans and so on. And we didn’t have to learn this feeling first, it was born in our cradle.

The important question that Darwin asked himself now was whether the physical expressions are also inherited?

Studies in this area questioned Darwin’s considerations. It was found that there was no cross-cultural connection between emotion and body language. Actually, it was:

      • The same person sometimes expresses the same emotion in different ways.
      • Different people express the same emotion differently.
      • Some people express one emotion intensively, others only weakly or not at all.

In the end, it turned out that most emotions are clearly culturally influenced and that one cannot read them off from body language without further information. It is not possible to set up a kind of universal “lexicon of body language” for all countries of the world and to clearly interpret the true feelings of others without any background knowledge.

Instead, you need more and more information about the situation in which someone is performing a certain gesture and then you can with a certain probability perform an interpretation. Body language is always seen in a CONTEXT.

This view lasted until the end of the 1960s. At that time Paul Ekman began to research the subject and discovered a number of emotions that do not need context to be correctly recognized. He found that there are 6 emotions (later it became 7) where the facial expression looks the same all over the world. These were the basic emotions mentioned above.

Ekman reviewed his theories on several continents, visiting indigenous tribes who lived very isolated and had little contact with the “modern world”. He wanted to make sure that the facial expressions of the people living there were not influenced by external influences.

His results can be summarized in this way: There are 7 emotions whose mimic expression is independent of culture worldwide. Anger and disgust etc. look the same with the natives on Borneo, as with the Japanese or the Australian Aboriginees. These facial expressions are the only ones that can be clearly read without context. All other expressions are not.


6 or 7 basic emotions?

This question comes up because some books or some internet pages mention one or the other number. Paul Ekman had identified 6 basic emotions in the first attempt. The feelings of disgust and contempt he had regarded as identical at that time. That is also obvious, because the expressions for contempt use the same muscle groups in the face, only that they are contracted one-sidedly with contempt. The corner of the mouth is raised on one side, the nose is wrinkled on one side and so on. Over the years, Ekman has separated the two basic emotions from each other because, in his opinion, they are similarly negative, but too different in their meaning and use.


FACS & The Muscles in the Human Face

If one sets up the theory that the 7 basic emotions / 7 basic emotions are the same in all cultures, then of course one has to prove this. But how is this supposed to work when it comes to facial expressions?

Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen “invented” FACS – the Facial Action Coding System – for this problem in 1978. FACS is a standard procedure that can describe the movements of mimic muscles precisely and scientifically.

Before I can describe FACS, I must first describe the muscles in the human face in more detail. In the graphic below I have shown an overview of the muscles in the human head. There are still some more, but they don’t play a role for facial expressions, so I omitted them.

Here you see the image from my German site. On the right you see the latin names of the muscles.

FACS Muscles Human Face
FACS Muscles Human Face – German / Latin Expressions

The special thing about the “mimic musculature” is that the muscles are not connected to joints like most others, but they usually insert into the skin, without an attachment tendon. In addition, they do not have fascia. They only serve to move the facial skin. If one thinks about it evolutionary-biologically, this makes relatively little sense. Why do people need muscles that are only responsible for facial movements? Never mind, that’s just the way it is…

If, for example, a person’s eyebrows are torn upwards, then a number of small muscles are responsible for this. In order to be able to describe such a movement, it would be necessary to describe which muscle does what. That would be too much effort. That is why Ekman has combined certain facial emotions into 46 ACTION UNITS. With their help it is easier to document facial movements.


FACS – List (Selection) of 46 Action Units

1. lifting of the inner eyebrow

2. raising the outer eyebrows

4. contraction of the eyebrows

5. lifting of the upper eyelid

6. contraction of the outer part of the ring muscle around the eyes

7. contraction of the inner part of the ring muscle around the eyes

9. hulls of the nose

10. lifting of the upper lip by the levator labii superioris muscle

11. pull the outer part of the upper lip diagonally upwards.

12. lifting the corners of the mouth as if smiling or laughing

13. raising the corners of the mouth by a sharp point

14. retraction of the corners of the mouth trumpeter muscle

15. pulling down the corners of the mouth

16. pulling the lower lip downwards

17. pushing up the chin

18. kiss mouth

22. lips arch outward in the shape of a funnel

23. tightening of the lips, these become narrower, rolled inwards and flattened to the teeth

24. pressing the lips together

25. opening the lips

26. opening the mouth by relaxing the lower jaw muscles

27. wide opening of the mouth

28. sucking lips between teeth

43. lowering of the upper eyelid

45. blink (two eyes)

46. blink (one eye)