Facial Expressions of Emotion

Facial Expressions of Emotion Definition

Human beings and some other animals have remarkable control over their facial muscles. Facial expressions of emotion are patterned movements of the muscles in the face that correspond with internal, affective states.

Facial Expressions of Emotion Importance

Facial Expressions of EmotionCommunication is clearly important to effective social interaction. Whereas humans are able to communicate with one another verbally, they also are able to communicate nonverbally through body language and facial expressions. Facial expression of emotion is an important aspect of communication, and our bodies and brains seem wired to engage in such communication.

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Two aspects of the nervous system highlight the biological readiness to engage in communication through facial expressions. First, human beings appear to have brain regions specifically dedicated to processing information about others’ faces. Remarkably, these brain regions are active and developing even in human infants. This suggests that humans are born with a propensity and ability to attend to and process information about other human faces. Second, each human brain has two cortical regions containing a map of one’s own body. The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain that interprets which body part or parts are receiving tactile information at any given time. The more sensitive a particular body part is, the more somatosensory cortex is devoted to it. The motor cortex is the brain region responsible for directing muscle commands to various parts of the body. The more control one has over a particular body part, the more motor cortex is dedicated to that body part. The face is disproportionately represented in both of these cortical regions. That is, there are greater portions of somatosensory and motor cortex dedicated to the face than one might expect based on the size of the face relative to the rest of the human body. All of this suggests that facial expression of emotions serves an important role and that our bodies are equipped to readily communicate through such expression.

Cultural Considerations in Facial Expressions of Emotion

Considering the communicative importance of facial expression of emotion, one might speculate that expressions of emotion are universal across cultures—that is, that all human beings make similar facial expressions when experiencing similar emotions and that observers from all cultures can interpret what any given person is feeling based on his or her facial expression. Indeed, Charles Darwin first championed this idea, arguing that facial expressions are species specific rather than culture specific. There is considerable evidence for this point of view.

Human beings are able to recognize facial expressions of at least six emotions with remarkable accuracy: happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, and disgust. Impressively, this has been demonstrated even in cultures with no prior contact with Western societies (suggesting that the research participants did not learn these emotional expressions from various media). Furthermore, when members of preliterate cultures were asked to make various facial expressions, Americans were able to recognize which emotion they were expressing. Accuracy of judgments of facial expression is good when the target being judged is a still photograph of an expression. The accuracy of such judgments improves when people are allowed to judge the facial expression in action.

The universality of facial expressions of emotion (and the interpretation of those expressions) suggests that they are innate rather than learned behaviors. Supporting this conclusion, people with congenital blindness produce similar facial expressions to people with sight. Furthermore, facial expressions of certain primates appear very similar to those of human beings. This evidence supports Darwin’s contention that facial expressions are evolved behaviors that serve an important communicative function.

Despite these cultural similarities, there also are differences in facial expression of emotion across cultures. First, people are approximately 10% more accurate at interpreting facial expressions of members of their own cultural group than they are of interpreting those from members of different cultural groups. However, it is important to remember that people are still quite accurate when judging members of other cultural groups. Second, different cultures and subgroups within cultures have different rules about the appropriateness of various expressions of emotion. For example, Americans tend to display anger much more readily than do Japanese people. People might therefore express emotion differentially across cultures. Third, recent research has identified an interesting cultural difference in how people interpret the emotional expressions of others. In this research, participants viewed a picture of a social scene and were asked to identify what emotion a particular person in the photograph was experiencing. Participants from Western countries used only the target person’s facial expression in making these judgments. Participants from Japan were more likely to use the entire context (i.e., the facial expressions of others in the scene) when making these judgments. For Americans, a smile always indicated happiness. For Japanese par-ticipants, a smile sometimes indicated happiness and other times indicated a smirk.

Expression versus Experience of Emotion

Researchers have debated the role of facial expressions of emotion for quite some time. Some argue that facial expression is a part of emotional experience, whereas others argue that facial expression simply reflects an internal state. Presently, there is no evidence to determine which of these perspectives is correct. One thing that is clear, however, is that facial expressions and emotion are strongly related to one another. Research has demonstrated that facial expressions can actually create emotional experience. Studies have demonstrated this by unobtrusively causing people to display a smile or a frown (by pronouncing different phonemes or by holding a pencil in the mouth) and then looking at the effects on mood. Smiling induced more pleasant moods, and frowning induced more negative moods. Facial expressions may cause emotion by creating physiological changes in the body. It is also possible that they cause emotion through a self-perception process in which people assume they must be happy (or sad) because they are smiling (or frowning). Of course, in the real world, people’s emotions are typically caused by factors besides their facial expressions. That expressions and experience of emotion are so closely related is an intriguing finding, however.


  • Ekman, P. (1993). Facial expression and emotion. American Psychologist, 48, 384-392.