Four Basic Emotions
February 15, 2014

Four Basic Emotions

When we think of human emotions, most of us think of the following:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Anger

For a long time, doctors and scientists considered these the six basic emotions of humans. redOrbit recently reported that humans may have even fewer emotional facial expressions than that because fear and surprise have similar facial muscle expressions as do disgust and anger, which means that they should not be separated. The University of Glasgow researched the emotions and found that happy, sad, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust really are the breakdown.

According to redOrbit’s article,

“The unique system developed by the study team uses cameras to record a three-dimensional image of participants’ faces. These participants were expressly trained to be able to activate all 42 individual facial muscles separately.

From the image, the system computer could generate a specific or random facial expression on a 3D model based on the triggering of different Action Units or clusters of units to impersonate all facial expressions.

Participants were then asked to observe the computer model as it generated various expressions and determine which emotion was being articulated. The researchers could then tell which specific Action Units observers correlate with specific emotions.

The study team discovered that the signals for fear/surprise and anger/disgust were confused at the beginning stage of transmission and only became more obvious later when other Action Units were incorporated.”

See, the basic facial expressions for happy and sad definitely are unique; however, that is not the case for fear and surprise nor for anger and disgust. Fear and surprise both start out with the same signal of open eyes. Anger and disgust similarly start at the same place with a wrinkled nose. It is not until later in the facial sequence that fear and surprise and anger and disgust differentiate.

As Rachael Jack, the study author, notes, the study team suspects this shrinking of emotional facial expressions happened because “Over time, and as humans migrated across the globe, socio-ecological diversity probably further specialized once-common facial expressions, altering the number, variety and form of signals across cultures.”

Over the past couple of weeks, I found myself going back to this article on a pretty daily basis. There was something about the fact that our facial expressions have combined that really caught my attention. I even started paying attention to my own facial expressions. Happy and sad definitely differ for me. And I think that my expressions of surprise and fear are probably very similar if not identical.

However, my anger expression does not include a wrinkled nose. In fact, my expression of anger is almost a blank expression. The only real action I take is to clench my jaw tightly. I also take slightly deeper breaths. Otherwise, my eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead remain almost stoic. Now, for disgust, my nose does wrinkle as does my forehead. So perhaps humans as a whole have four basic emotional facial expressions, but I think I might have five as my anger emotion differentiates from my disgust one.

It was fun to think about how I make facial expressions. I also started really paying attention to the way others expressed emotions. I found myself staring rather intently at people around me. I wanted to understand their expressions because this article inspired me to do so. That’s the power of science, right?

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Email


Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

Send Rayshell an email