What are Universal Expressions?

Seven Universal Expressions

Scientists have found that the muscles in our face can produce 30 independent movements– 12 in the upper face, and 18 in the lower face. Working together in various combinations, these muscle movements are capable of creating thousands of expressions. However, many scientists agree that out of all of these expressions, only seven are 'universal'– innate within all of us, regardless of culture. They are...

Fear, Disgust, Anger, Happiness, Sadness, Surprise & Contempt


Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons

That's good news for you and I, because it means we only need to learn these seven expressions to have a fairly good understanding of important emotions that are expressed in the people around us. I want to teach you how to recognise these, so keep reading for images and descriptions of what to look for. Understanding these expressions gives you the power to confirm or negate any assumed beliefs you have of the emotions of others. This is beneficial knowledge across all areas of life– work, love, social and family. Imagine knowing the exact point in your pitch that your client didn't like- just by a slight narrowing of the eyes. Or whether your little one is genuinely sad– or faking it!

Let me start by explaining, in a nutshell, some interesting historical details of how we arrived at this knowledge. If history bores you, jump down to the 'Microexpressions' or 'First Steps to Recognising the Universal Expressions' section. 

A Brief History

Charles Darwin theorised that our most important emotions, such as fear, are universal. Authenticating his theory of evolution, Darwin argued that man and animals express emotion in a similar way, determined by shared ancestry. He derived some of his evidence from Guillaume Duchenne, who claimed expression was “universal and immutable”. Interested in the physiology of emotion, Duchenne simulated expression, by administering electric shocks to his subjects’ faces, observing which muscle groups worked together (ouch)!

Duchenne and Darwin weren’t the first to study expression or suggest universality, but their work led to extensive study a century later, after a period where most scientists believed that behavioural traits, including expression, were learned, and therefore not universal. Research in the field took off in the 1960's, with Silvan Tomkins leading the new era of study. He theorised that there are nine universal ‘affects’; innate physiological responses, resulting in a ‘feeling’ and physical display in the body, primarily the face. He had a remarkable knack for reading expression, which was pivotal in inspiring Paul Ekman to focus his study on the face. Ekman, renowned for his work in the area, believed Tomkins was wrong about the universality of expression. However, his own research, along with concurrent work by Carrol Izard, and other researchers, soon began to hint that Tomkins could be right. 


Around the same time, Haggard and Isaacs discovered the microexpression; an involuntary leak of a true, or repressed, emotional expression, occurring within a fraction of a second. We're talking about the same seven universal expressions (fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise & contempt), but expressed in the blink of an eye– almost impossible to spot if you haven't had practise. Check out the moving image below to see how quick a micro expression can be, this is fear at 1/25th of a second.

Fear Microexpression

The benefit of spotting microexpressions allows you to see true emotions that are often otherwise concealed– so they can help you to discover the truth. If you're interested in practising to spot microexpressions, there's a fabulous app called FaceORama (Mac), this helped me to learn how to spot them. Your first step, however, is learning what the expressions look like. 

Over the next sixty years, scientists continued to study expressions and microexpressions, leading to today’s majority agreement of seven universal expressions. In 2016, researchers discovered a potential eighth universal expression; ’the not face’, which communicates negative moral judgement– disapproval or disagreement. Although this has been seen in a number of cultural backgrounds, it's still not clear whether it's universal across all cultures. 


First Steps to Recognising the Universal Expressions

If you scroll down, you'll find seven illustrations representing each expression. On the right-hand side, you'll see the muscle movements which are called Action Units (AUs) and their descriptions. The AUs work together to create the expression. These are part of a standardised coding system called Facial Action Coding System (FACS) that researchers use to recognise and study expression. The system was developed by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen based on the work of Carl-Herman Hjortsjö. To see how individual muscle movements/AUs look, check out iMotions moving images. Interestingly, FACS has formed the basis for similar coding systems for a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, horses, chimpanzees, sheep, etc. That's right– researchers can now read the expression of your pet! Some of these were initially developed to recognise (and minimise) pain in animals.

As it turns out, there are strikingly similar muscles and muscle movements (AUs) between animals and humans- (yes, that includes horses), this even surprised the researchers. The muscle movements, however, can look very different between species, due to the morphology of the various facial structures. For example, in this video the horse is using AU12, the 'lip corner puller' which is the same muscle and movement that you and I make when we smile with our mouth– of course it looks different on us. Scientists don't yet know enough about whether expressions in animals stem from the same feeling of emotion, as they do in humans– but they are working on it. So we don't know for sure whether this horse was smiling with happiness. We'd need to simultaneously look inside his brain to see if areas of the brain relating to happiness were activated– as you can imagine that would be difficult. Or give him a survey to self report his levels of happiness– perhaps, looking into his brain would be easier! 

Video: By Wathan J, Burrows A, Waller B, McComb K, via Wikimedia Commons

On the left-hand side of the illustrations below, you'll see a description (and image) of how the expression looks. Let your first step be to look at each illustration and try to mimic the expression. Look at the image to activate your mirror neurons and read the description to fine tune your expression. Practicing these expressions in the mirror will also help. There's another fabulous app that can help you to perfect your expressions– AffdexMe (Mac / Android). Once you've learned how to mimic these expressions and have seen them in yourself, your next step is to start to look for them in others. It can be hard to focus on this at the same time as having a conversation, it's much easier to do it whilst watching the news, which is full or emotionally charged interviews. Once you start to get better at it, you'll even notice them on the composed faces of the newsreaders! Then slowly start to notice them on the faces of the people that you interact with.

Universal Expression Fear
Universal Expression Disgust
Universal Expression Anger
Universal Expression Happiness
Universal Expression Sadness
Universal Expression Surprise
Universal Expression Contempt

Guess the expression

How did you go with mimicking the expressions? Have a look at the moving pictures below and see whether you recognise the expressions. Each one gets a little faster as you progress to the next and the order of the expressions is mixed up.

Guess the expression 3600

Try a faster one...

Guess the expression 2600

Faster still!...

Practice 1600.gif

Still going? Wow, you're good!

Guess the Expression 800

Want to try a microexpression at 1/25 of a second?...

Disgust Microexpression

Did you spot it? What was it?...

It was disgust. Kudos to you if you got it, you could be a 'truth wizard'!