In Fact, There Are More Than 21 Facial Expressions
Christopher Philip

Credit: Plotting facial expressions (PNAS).

Credit: Plotting facial expressions (PNAS).

First you thought there were six or was it seven, and then you figured they were universal or not, and then we lost a couple as they were too similar (fear and surprise), well now, research says that people have over 20 facial expressions!

I’m not exactly surprised by these findings – as when science tries to put things into a box, usually the restrictions put on them, especially when it comes to things as highly variable as nonverbal behaviour, those things tend to escape out the edges.

In this study, the restricted six basic categories of happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust spilled over into many other categories.

The study was done using samples images from 230 subjects, mostly students, which were coded using the software FACS. Facial Action Coding System breaks the face down into small components and systematically analyzes facial muscles and movement.

By using new computer software, researchers Shichuan Du, Yong Tao and Aleix Martinez mapped no less than 21 emotional states. By doing so, they found variation in the standard emotional expressions.

Compound expressions such as “happily disgusted” and “sadly angry” were included in their assessment.

Compound emotions are those created by combining two basic component categories to create new ones. For example, happily surprised and angrily surprised are two distinct categories, but when coupled produce a novel expression with it’s own unique meaning. Naturally, the happily surprised expression is a combination of muscle movements observed in happiness and surprised. Likewise, angrily surprised in a combination of the angry expression and the surprised expression.

Credit: Plotting facial expressions (PNAS). Click to Enlarge [large version]

Credit: Plotting facial expressions (PNAS). Click to Enlarge [large version]

“We found a strong consistency in how people move their facial muscles to express 21
categories of emotions”, said Martinez.

According to his research, he figures that the 21 emotions are expressed the same way
by nearly everyone, at least in our culture.

Restricting emotions to just six categories is like painting only using primary colours, said Martinez.

The researchers say that the computer model could help those suffering from autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.



Shichuan Du; Yong Tao and Aleix M. Martinez. Compound facial expressions of emotion. Published online before print on March 31, 2014. DOI10.1073/pnas.1322355111

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