Three Mistakes People Make about the 7 Basic Emotions

Human beings have seven basic emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt, and surprise. An emotion is a basic emotion if it has been scientifically demonstrated to be expressed and recognized the same by all cultures. In effect, a basic emotion has been shown to be associated with a specific set of facial expressions 1.

This sounds simple in practice, but there are a lot of misconceptions that people have about the seven basic emotions. Here are three common ones that I’ve seen.

1. Aren’t these universal emotions?

The term “universal emotion” is a bit misleading. The seven basic emotions have universal facial expressions, and are universally recognizable. There are other emotions such as pride which may be universally felt, but don’t have specifically recognizable facial expressions across all cultures 2. The key to what makes basic emotions basic is that they have specific facial expressions that are uniquely recognizable across all cultures.

2. So the basic emotions always look the same?

It really depends on what you mean by “look the same”. Universal facial expression doesn’t quite mean universal appearance, for several different reasons. The facial expressions are prototypical, meaning not every element needs to occur. For instance a display of joy may or may not include an open mouth when the corners of the lips are raised 3 (i.e. when someone smiles). The intensity of the action can also affect what the expression looks like. If you raise the corners of your lips very strongly (i.e. smile really wide) it can cause crows feet around the corners of the eye without needing to contract the muscle surrounding the eye. It is also quite easy to confuse different facial movements, especially when multiple muscles are involved. There are more reasons but these should give you the basic idea.

3. These are microexpressions right?

No, but there is a relationship. A microexpression is a very brief display of the facial expressions associated with the seven basic emotions 4. That is a microexpression is a (very brief) display of a basic emotion, but it is not the emotion itself. This is sort of like how a picture of a car isn’t actually the car itself. Both a microexpression and a picture of a car are a representation of something, but not they are not the actual item they describe.


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  1. […] ↩There is a difference between basic emotions and those that are universally experienced. ↩ […]

  2. […] 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. […]

  3. […] ↩FACSGen 2.0 ↩What Are Facial Expressions? ↩Three Mistakes People Make about the 7 Basic Emotions ↩People sometimes mistake universally recognized to mean universally experienced.  While the […]