Scientists Discover That Humans Have 21 Different Facial Expressions

They are expressions we see every day, but can you recognise them all? And which one portrays ‘happily disgusted’?

Scientists believe we routinely pull 21 distinct faces – more than three times the long-accepted figure of six.

Some, including basic happiness and sadness, need no introduction, but others, including ‘happily disgusted’, require further explanation.

Despite this, the U.S. researchers believe they are emotions we are all familiar with.

‘We’ve gone beyond facial expressions for simple emotions like “happy” or “sad”’, said lead researcher Dr Aleix Martinez.

‘We found a strong consistency in how people move their facial muscles to express 21 categories of emotions.

‘That is simply stunning. That tells us that these 21 emotions are expressed in the same way by nearly everyone, at least in our culture.’

It’s been widely considered humans have six distinct facial expressions, but new research claims this figure is 21, including ‘surprised’ pictured

It’s been widely considered humans have six distinct facial expressions, but new research claims this figure is 21, including ‘surprised’ pictured

The Ohio State University researchers began by asking 230 volunteers to depict the six widely-known basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.

They were also asked to act out so-called ‘compound emotions’, such as being ‘happy’, ‘angry’ or ‘fearful’.

21_Emotions-WomanHappyAndThreeOthers  21_Emotions-WomanAngryAndThreeOthers

To ensure the results were as clear as possible, the volunteers were told not to wear glasses, and shave off any facial hair.

Hats were banned and fringes pulled back, to allow the forehead and eyebrows to be seen.

The volunteers were given time to practise pulling the faces in front of a mirror, before being photographed.

The photos were then analysed individually, to determine which facial muscles had moved to form the expression.

This revealed clear differences in the way the 21 emotions were expressed.

For instance, 99 per cent of the time, the volunteers showed happiness by raising their cheeks and stretching their mouth in a smile.

Surprise was also easily detected, with 92 per cent of 230 participants opening their eyes wide and dropping their jaw.

The analysis showed that the compound emotions are expressed by combining some of the features of the individual feelings.

For instance, someone who is ‘happily surprised’ moves all the muscles associated with showing surprise, and adds in a smile for good measure.




We pull this face, apparently, when we receive some unexpected good news.

In contrast, we reserve ‘sadly angry’ for when someone we care about upsets us.

Being appalled, involves feeling disgust and anger, with the emphasis on disgust, but this photo was not included in the grid.

Hate involves the same two emotions but with more feeling put into the anger than disgust.

And we are ‘happily disgusted’ when we are amused by something we also find slightly repellent, such as a joke that is in bad taste.

In these situations, we combine the scrunched up eyes and wrinkled nose of disgust, with the smile of happiness.

Gaining a better understanding of our emotions could help treat conditions such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as in the design of computerised aids for the disabled.

The findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers analysed photos to reveal how different muscle movements create complex facial expressions. They found people routinely pull 21 distinct faces








Appalled (not pictured)

Happily surprised

Happily disgusted

Sadly fearful

Sadly angry

Sadly surprised

Sadly disgusted

Fearfully angry

Fearfully surprised

Fearfully disgusted

Angrily surprised

Angrily disgusted

Disgustedly surprised



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