Facial Expressions and Emotions

19 Aug
Ekman Facial Expressions

Ekman Facial Expressions


Can you tell when your spouse or child or friend is angry? Or scared? Or worried? Can you simply look at their face and determine what they’re feeling? What emotions are in play?

Most people would say yes and indeed we have been taught that much of communication is nonverbal, meaning facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, and other cues that we constantly receive from others. Nearly half a century ago psychologist Paul Ekman “proved” that facial expressions revealed six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. He further said that these expressions crossed all racial and cultural lines so that each human expressed emotions in their face in exactly the same way. Psychologists and police have used this technique for many years.

But is that true?

Lisa Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, thinks not. Here’s a fascinating article from Boston Magazine that discusses the uses and abuses of facial expressions in determining emotions:



7 responses to “Facial Expressions and Emotions

  1. Craig Faustus Buck

    August 19, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Very interesting piece, Doug.


  2. Sally Carpenter

    August 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    What about terrorists and criminals who have trained themselves not to show any emotion and thus not arouse suspicion? Also, most people don’t express their emotions as broadly as these photos. Normal reactions are far more subtle.


  3. Angus

    August 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    The facial expression article is universally apt. My problem with Ekman’s facial expressions is that in real life we seldom see them so static; they come and go. Especially in children, a face may show surprise, fear and glee within a few seconds.

    If you haven’t seen this, it’s worth reading.( ) The post is ultimately about racial profiling, but the writer gives a rather vivid description of experiencing three bullet wounds.

    I am always pleased to get your Emails. Much of what you convey is pertinent beyond thrillers. I don’t write the latter, but I write about people, and your information is useful in many ways.
    Thank you.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks for the link. I hope my posts help writers in all genres. After all, storytelling is storytelling.


  4. mirlacca

    August 19, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    A lot depends on the emotional state of the person doing the looking, too. I can still remember being told “Wipe that look off your face!” when I wasn’t thinking of ANYTHING in particular. Apparently I’ve just got one of those faces.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      August 19, 2013 at 5:07 pm

      Exactly. It’s pt as simple as Ekman would have believed–but then those were simpler times.


  5. Pat Marinelli

    August 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Miriacca, I laughed when I saw your comment. I remember my Mom telling me to “Wipe that look off your face.” Also my former boss told me I could never lie for anyone in the office unless it was over the phone. I guess I have one of those faces also. Great post here for writers.



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