Five Tips for Reading Facial Expressions

Have you ever tried to figure out what it means when someone gives you “the look”?  Maybe they angry at something you did, or at something you didn’t do.  Reading facial expressions is tricky, so here are 5 simple tips to make you a better “face reader”.

1. Focus on emotions, specifically the basic emotions

Quiz question: what is the facial expression of a liar?

It’s a trick question because there is no facial expression for “I’m lying to you”.

This highlights a classic beginner’s mistake: trying to associate an overly-specific meaning to a facial expression.  Even though we can make thousands of different facial expressions, we don’t use them in the same way we do words.  While words can have very specific meanings, facial expressions are more general.

So when reading the face you’ll be better off focusing on emotions rather than trying to figure out the facial expression for “Honest, I didn’t take the last beer from the fridge”.

So what emotions should you focus on?  Well there are seven emotions that have been scientifically demonstrated to be associated with specific facial configurations. 1  These emotions are called basic emotions, and facial expressions of these emotions can be reliably recognized across all cultures worldwide. The seven basic emotions are:

  1. Surprise
  2. Fear
  3. Disgust
  4. Contempt
  5. Anger
  6. Sadness
  7. Happiness

It’s important to remember that the seven emotions listed above aren’t the only emotions that are universally experienced, just the ones that have universally recognized expressions.  So if you want to be more accurate at reading facial expressions, focus on recognizing emotions, specifically the basic emotions.

2. Examine the entire face

Facial expressions can involve multiple areas of the face. For example the key movements commonly associated with surprise are:

  • The entire eyebrows are pulled up
  • The upper eyelids are pulled up
  • The jaw drops or is pulled down

Another common mistake is to assume an expression of emotion without actually seeing all of the movements.  If you see the eyebrow raising movement described above, it could be a partial expression of surprise.  However the eyebrows are also raised in fear (and combined with a third eyebrow movement).  Beyond emotional expressions, eyebrow raising is also commonly used to accent parts of speech.

The moral of the story is: to increase your accuracy, look for changes across the entire face.

3. Pay attention to what you don’t see

Recognizing facial expressions of emotion involves looking for movements across the entire face.  Accurately recognizing facial expressions of emotion involves paying attention to what you don’t see as well as what you do.

Consider the expressions of surprise and fear. These two expressions are often confused, and I suspect part of the reason why, is because the movements associated with surprise are essentially a subset of the movements associated with fear. Here are the primary movements associated with each:


  • Eyebrows are pulled up
  • Upper eyelids are pulled up
  • Jaw is lowered


  • Eyebrows are pulled up and together
  • Upper are eyelids pulled up, and lower eyelids are tensed
  • Lip corners are pulled back, jaw may be lowered

As you can see, some of the movements listed above (such as the eyebrows being pulled up) are common to both fear and surprise. However here are the differences:

In Fear, but not Surprise:

  • Eyebrows are pulled together
  • Lower eyelids are tensed
  • Lip corners pulled back

The key is that the differences between expressions of fear and surprise are the movements you don’t see.

4. Don’t forget about emotional blends

Our emotions like our lives, are complex.  Rather than just feeling a single emotion such as sadness or anger, it is not uncommon for people to feel a mix of several different emotions at the same time.

When this happens (feeling multiple emotions at the same time) it is called an emotional blend.  Facial expressions of emotional blends often include movements of each individual basic emotion.  So a person who strongly dislikes wearing a turtle neck and is then made to wear one may experience both disgust and anger, as shown in the picture below:

Anger Disgust Blended Facial Expression

An expression that includes movements of both anger and disgust (Photo by Lara604)

Since emotional blends can, and often do occur, it’s a good idea to ask yourself whether you are looking at an expression of a single emotion, or  of multiple emotions.

5. Consider what the rest of the body is telling you

To wrap things up, we’ll keep this last one short and to the point.  Basically while the face can be a rich source of nonverbal information, the rest of the body can be just as informative.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to both the face and the body, although this isn’t always possible.  For example the videos from surveillance cameras in small businesses are notorious for providing low resolution footage (with large time gaps.)  In cases like these (accurately) reading the suspect’s facial expressions can be more difficult, and provide less information, than by observing their body language.

So if you can observe both facial expressions and body language, do so.  It will give you a better overall picture.

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