Facial Expressions of Emotions (Microexpressions)

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

The facial expressions of seven common emotions, also known as "microexpressions," tell others how we are feeling inside. Use this as a rough guide for reading people’s true feelings. You can also use it as a way to assess what messages your facial expressions may be sending out and how you communicate with others.

What Do Our Facial Expressions Mean?

Our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice says more than what we actually say to other people. If you want to know what someone is really feeling, it’s important to look at body language and facial expressions. 

Research on Facial Expressions and Microexpressions

The research on body language and facial expressions and emotions goes all the way back to Charles Darwin. He suggested that the universality of facial expressions supports the theory of evolution. At the time, Darwin’s suggestions weren’t taken seriously. It wasn’t until the 1960s that psychologists began to dive deeper into facial expressions and how they represent different emotions.

This research, led by Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman, and Carroll Izard, became known as the “universality studies.” The studies looked at seven universal emotions and corresponding facial expressions.

Are Microexpressions Real?

There is strong evidence to support that these facial expressions reveal our true emotions. In some cases, they don’t last very long. “Micro-expressions” can last for a fraction of a second, but if you catch them, you’re likely to have more insight into how a person is feeling.

What Triggers Microexpressions?

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t express how they are really feeling. Maybe they don’t want to feel like a burden. Or they are worried that expressing their true feelings will upset someone else. Maybe they are trying to ignore how they are really feeling inside. But even when people don’t vocalize their feelings, their faces and bodies still find ways to express what’s going on inside.


Types of Microexpressions

So let’s look at these seven universal emotions:

  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Contempt
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Happiness


If you tell something that they did not expect to hear, you might see their eyebrows raise. (Eyebrows may also raise if the person likes what they hear.) The eyes underneath will widen and the person’s jaw is likely to drop.

You might notice that the mouth, eyes, or eyebrows move in similar ways for different emotions. For example, the jaw might drop or the mouth might open for surprise or fear. But that is where subtle differences really reveal what a person is feeling. If a person is surprised, they are likely to be loose around the mouth and jaw. If they are fearful, things might get tense.


Surprise and fear result in similar facial expressions, but there is a lot more tension in a scared person’s face. Their eyebrows may also raise, but rather than arching the eyebrows, they will look more flat. This often creates wrinkles in the center of the forehead between the eyebrows.

The eyes will open, but the lower eyelids may be tensed.

The mouth is also likely to be open, but the true giveaway of fear is how far back the lips are. Fear usually creates tension in the mouth, drawing the corners of the lips back in the face.


Disgust looks quite a bit different. If someone looks like they’ve smelled something bad, they either have smelled something bad or heard something that they think is disgusting. We tend to tense the middle of the face when we are disgusted. This causes the nose to wrinkle and the upper lip to raise, exposing the top row of teeth. The cheeks may also raise, causing some wrinkles around the lower eyes.


If someone is angry, their face tenses up in three different places. The first place is the eyes and eyebrows. Anger causes people to lower their eyebrows and draw them together. You might see vertical wrinkles between the brows. You might also see the whites of their eyes, but the lower lid of the eye is tensed up and wrinkles may appear under the eye.

The nose will also tense up and the nostrils will flare out.

In the mouth area, the lips may draw tight together and form a straight line. The lower jaw pushes out.

This is not a great facial expression to see on the person across the room from you.


Contempt is slightly different than anger. If someone is feeling contempt toward another person, they aren’t exactly angry. They may just feel that the person is beneath them in some sort of way.

Contempt is not an easy microexpression to spot; only the lips tell you if someone is feeling contempt or hate. The eyes, eyebrows, and nose may remain neutral. Only one side of the lip will tense up. This creates a crooked mouth with one side raised. Again, this is not an expression you want to see on someone’s face.


While people can fake facial expressions quite easily, not a lot of people can pass for being sad if they’re not actually feeling it.

What’s an easy tell that someone is sad? They’ll frown! The jaw and lower lip raise and stick out while the corners of the lips lower.

The eyes and eyebrows do something a little different. When someone is sad, the eyebrows will droop but the inner corners of the eyebrows will move upward. The eyelids droop down and the eyes may not be as focused or alert as they would be in other facial expressions.


Last but not least is happiness. When someone is happy, their cheeks may raise and they may expose their teeth in a big smile or laugh.

It’s easy to spot when someone is faking happiness. A true smile reaches up the face and causes “crow’s feet.” Another wrinkle may appear between the upper lip and the nose. Additional wrinkles may appear underneath the eyes, as the lower lid may remain tense. If someone complains about their wrinkles, remind them that they come from a lifetime of happiness!

Again, these facial expressions may vary slightly due to context and the individual person’s face. Try faking these microexpressions in the mirror and see watch your face changes when you feel different emotions!

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, December). Facial Expressions of Emotions (Microexpressions). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/facial-expressions-of-emotions/.

About The Author

Photo of author