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Published July 1, 2019 | Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements


It is commonly assumed that a person's emotional state can be readily inferred from his or her facial movements, typically called emotional expressions or facial expressions. This assumption influences legal judgments, policy decisions, national security protocols, and educational practices; guides the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illness, as well as the development of commercial applications; and pervades everyday social interactions as well as research in other scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and computer vision. In this article, we survey examples of this widespread assumption, which we refer to as the common view, and we then examine the scientific evidence that tests this view, focusing on the six most popular emotion categories used by consumers of emotion research: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. The available scientific evidence suggests that people do sometimes smile when happy, frown when sad, scowl when angry, and so on, as proposed by the common view, more than what would be expected by chance. Yet how people communicate anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise varies substantially across cultures, situations, and even across people within a single situation. Furthermore, similar configurations of facial movements variably express instances of more than one emotion category. In fact, a given configuration of facial movements, such as a scowl, often communicates something other than an emotional state. Scientists agree that facial movements convey a range of information and are important for social communication, emotional or otherwise. But our review suggests an urgent need for research that examines how people actually move their faces to express emotions and other social information in the variety of contexts that make up everyday life, as well as careful study of the mechanisms by which people perceive instances of emotion in one another. We make specific research recommendations that will yield a more valid picture of how people move their faces to express emotions and how they infer emotional meaning from facial movements in situations of everyday life. This research is crucial to provide consumers of emotion research with the translational information they require.

Additional Information

© 2019 The Author(s). Article first published online: July 17, 2019; Issue published: July 1, 2019. This work was supported by U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences Grant W911NF-16-1-019 (to L. F. Barrett); National Cancer Institute Grant U01-CA193632 (to L. F. Barrett); National Institute of Mental Health Grants R01-MH113234 and R01-MH109464 (to L. F. Barrett), 2P50-MH094258 (to R. Adolphs), and R01-MH61285 (to S. D. Pollak); National Science Foundation Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation Grant 1638234 (to L. F. Barrett and S. Marsella); National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Grant R01-DC014498 (to A. M. Martinez); National Eye Institute Grant R01-EY020834 (to A. M. Martinez); Human Frontier Science Program Grant RGP0036/2016 (to A. M. Martinez); Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grant U54-HD090256 (to S. D. Pollak); a James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowship (to S. D. Pollak); and Air Force Office of Scientific Research Grant FA9550-14-1-0364 (to S. Marsella).

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August 19, 2023
October 20, 2023