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100 Things You Should Know About People: #65 — Seven Emotions Are Universal



If you go to the other side of the world and interact with people there, can you recognize the emotions they are feeling by looking at their facial expressions? Paul Ekman says the answer is yes. He has been studying emotions for many years and in different geographies and cultures. He has identified seven emotions that seem to be universal:

  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear

What is an emotion? — Considering how important emotions are in our everyday life, there is not as much research on emotions as you might think. In order to study emotions it’s necessary to define them first. Scientists studying emotions contrast them with moods and attitudes:

  • Emotions = have physiological correlates, expressed physically (gestures, facial expressions), often result in an action, and result from a specific event.
  • Moods = last longer than emotions, perhaps a day or two, may not be expressed physically, and may not come from a specific event.
  • Attitudes = have a more cognitive, conscious brain component.

Learn how to read facial expressions — Paul Ekman is the expert in how to read emotions in facial expressions. He has two books (2007 and 2009) and is a consultant on Fox for their TV series “Lie to Me”. According to Ekman’s work, there are 40 facial muscles that are the main muscles used in showing emotion. He offers a one-hour online course to learn how to read “micro-expressions” to tell what people are feeling. Several different research teams around the world are working on software to automate the reading of facial expressions (for security and anti-terrorism work for example).

Gestures are not universal — Facial expressions seem to be universal, and so are many vocalizations that are used to express emotions such as crying and laughing (Sauter, 2010) but gestures accompanying emotions are not as universal.

What do you think? Would you spend an hour to learn how to read facial expressions?

For those of you who want to read more:

Ekman, Paul. (2007). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, 2nd Edition. Holt.

Ekman, Paul. (2009). Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, 3rd Edition. Norton.

Sauter, D., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2010). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2408-2412.


5 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #65 — Seven Emotions Are Universal”

  1. Danny @ Firepole Marketing Avatar

    I would definitely spend the hour – but isn’t that something that we all intuitively learn how to do over time? Isn’t that a part of emotional intelligence and literacy?

  2. Brian Sullivan Avatar
    Brian Sullivan

    Ironically, you hear UX people talk mostly about joy (also called happiness). The conversation is dominated by what makes us happy. I think of the Apple advertisements about the joy of the iPad with the snazzy music and all.

    I think that sadness, fear, & disgust are very important. At the Big Design Conference 2011, we have our keynote speaker talking about what she has done at the Civil Rights Museum during their recent re-design.

    I think UX people need to pay more attention to the other emotions that you listed here.

  3. kassiano Avatar

    I did the one hour course ! it was very good , I liked .

  4. Edward C Avatar

    I find it interesting that after a year there are only 3 posts for this article, and all from men.

    And I’m another man adding my 2 cents.

    I was taught that the 7 emotions were:

    Fear is not an emotion but a debilitating reaction. You can be sad for hours and not come apart at the seams, but fear will corrode you to the core.

    Anyway, there will be all kinds of opinions about what a ‘real’ emotion is.

  5. Edward C Avatar

    I must add anger to my list, which makes 8 emotions.

    Probably most people will not understand freedom as an emotion, but we do understand captivity and despair.

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