Facial Expressions and Emotions

By: Claire Nassif & Greer Shellow


When given an array of pictures with human faces, many people can distinguish the emotions that are associated with different facial expressions. However, there has been much debate in recent years over how we can distinguish these different emotions by one’s facial expression and whether these facial expressions necessarily link to emotion or if they simply appear to. Even more, recent research has exposed that there may be more discernible categories of emotions than originally conceived to be seen through facial expressions. Until recently, scientists believed that there are six basic categories of emotion, including happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. However, new research suggest that there are many more categories that encompass human emotion. This article will explore the connection between facial expression and true emotion and the variability in discernible emotions from facial expressions.


The History

Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard pioneered the study of facial expressions in the late 1960s. Their work investigated the link between facial expressions and basic emotions. From their research, Ekman and Izard conceived that one can tell a person’s true emotions based on their facial expression. Others disagreed with these findings, including Fridlund, who contended that facial expressions have more to do with those who perceive the facial expressions rather than those who present them. Therefore, Fridlund disagreed that facial expression shows the feelings of the person, but instead catalyzes action based on the person viewing the facial expression. For example, when a person smiles, this initiates further social interaction with another because that other person conceives the interaction positively. However, the smile on this person’s face may not entail true happiness. Further, Fridlund found that facial expressions facilitated pivotal points in social interaction, such as during social greetings.


Is there more to basic emotions than we think?

In a recent study by Du, Tao and Martinez, they found that the six basic categories of emotion that are known to be differentiable through facial expression may not be enough to cover all of the visible emotion categories. The study included 230 human subjects and a Facial Action Coding System analyzed the facial expressions of these participants through pictures. The study resulted in 15 new found emotion categories that each represent a specific configuration of certain facial muscles that can be differentiated between. However, these new emotion categories are not basic, such as happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust, but instead compound emotions. They include a basic emotion as well as a subordinate category, resulting in categories such as happily disgusted, sadly fearful, and angrily surprised, etc. These are significant findings because science for the most part has accepted the six basic categories, which may have limited other important research about humans and how we process emotions. By defining these new categories of emotion, this may lead to new ways of researching psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD and schizophrenia. Further, there may be technological implications, such as improving human-computer interaction systems.





Can Facial Expressions Elicit Emotion?

One point of controversy arouse around Ekman’s discovery that voluntarily making a facial expression could prompt an emotion. Have you ever heard that smiling will make you happier? Well, studies show it’s true. At least, manipulating your facial muscles into a smile can create a subjective feeling of happiness. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the “facial feedback hypothesis.” Multiple studies have tested this hypothesis, one of which is the pen in mouth test. Research participants were told to hold a pen using different parts of their body, as if they were disabled. First, the participants had to hold a pen with their lips, which inhibited the zygomaticus major or risorius muscles associated with smiling, and were asked to write using their mouths. Then, they had to hold the pen with strictly their teeth, creating a smile on the participants’ faces, though they were not aware. When asked to rate the funniness of cartoons after the experiment, the cartoons seemed funnier when the participated rated them with the pen in between their teeth. So, if you’re ever feeling down, just smile (or hold a pen in between your teeth) and you will make yourself happier. Happiness is that easy.



Facial Expressions and Language

In a study by David Havas, researchers tested whether or not facial expressions affect one’s emotional interpretation of written language. 40 participants were given Botox treatments to inhibit the movement of the forehead muscles that cause brow-furrowing involved in frowning. The participants then had to read different “happy” or “sad” emotions. Those with the inability to furrow their brows took longer to process the sad or angry sentences after Botox treatment than before. However, the Botox did not affect their ability to process the happy sentences at the same speed. The finding that facial expression can be linked to language comprehension was groundbreaking to the study of emotions.



Works Cited

Azar, Beth. “What’s in a Face?” Monitor 31.1 (2000): n. pag. Jan. 2000. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Du, Shichuan, Yong Tau, and Aleix M. Martinez. “Compound Facial Expressions of Emotion.” PNAS (2014): n. pag. Pnas.org. Mar.-Apr. 2014. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2014.

Nauert, Rick. “Facial Expressions Control Emotions – Psych Central News. PsychCentral.com Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Strack, Fritz, Leonard L. Martin, and Sabine Stepper. “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis.” Journal of personality and social psychology 54.5 (1988): 768-77. ProQuest. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Wilson, Jacque. “Happily Disgusted? 15 New Emotions ID’d.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01. Jan. 1970. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.


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