Emotion Families: Part 1

Organizing facial expressions of emotion

emotion families
Excerpt from Semiotics around the World: Synthesis in Diversity

How do we categorize facial expressions of emotion?

While there are seven universal facial expressions of emotion we all experience, there are still many more worth exploring and understanding. Luckily, most of these additional emotional facial expressions can be organized and placed into one of seven emotion families: anger, happiness, sadness, contempt, surprise, fear, disgust.

We found not one facial expression for each emotion, but instead a variety of related yet visually different expressions. For example, when looking at the emotion “anger”, we found sixty different expressions that share certain common configurational properties which distinguish them from the family of fear expressions, disgust expressions, etc. Variations within emotion families, such as fear expressions, likely reflect the intensity of the emotion, whether or not the emotion is controlled, whether it is deliberately made or spontaneous, as well as the specifics of the event which provoked the emotion.

What are emotion families?

Just as it is useful to think of expressions as constituting families I have proposed (Ekman 1992) that we consider each emotion as constituting a family of related affective states, which share commonalities in their expression, physiological activity, and in the types of appraisal which call them forth. These shared characteristics within an emotion family should distinguish one emotion family from another. The anger family, for example, would include variations in intensity stretching from annoyance to rage. It should also include different forms of anger such as resentment, which is the kind of anger in which there is a sense of grievance; indignation and outrage, which are anger about the mistreatment of someone; vengeance, the anger which retaliates against a misdeed by another; berserk, anger which appears to others to be an uncontrolled response inappropriate to any provocation, and so on.

Emotion themes

The characteristics shared by all members of an emotion family constitute the theme for that emotion, and are most likely to represent the contribution of nature. The different members of the family are variations around that theme reflecting more the influence of nurture and the particulars of the occasion when the emotion occurs. Our common language of emotion words may include many or few descriptions relevant to any of the emotion families. In English we have many terms for anger, some specifying how the person is behaving (e.g., argumentative, testy huffy, sulky, spiteful, etc.); some of which are metaphors (e.g., “fed up”, “pissed off”); and some referring to changes in physiology (e.g., hot, bristling).

To learn more about emotional states and how they compare to others in their family, we recommend using the Atlas of Emotions to help guide you.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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