I know how you feel…

you feel

…and I know why you feel so! But why do I know???

A single look at other people can tell a lot their emotional state, especially looking into their faces. For instance image the following: Highly curved eyebrows, widely opened eyes, a dropped jaw and a parted moth – what does this tell us? Most likely we would assume the person to be surprised. How about a raised upper lip that causes wrinkles on the sides and the bridge of the nose, raised cheeks, narrowly opened eyes and lowered eyebrows? Most people would agree that this facial expression is created by disgust. What does a slightly parted mouth with its corners drawn backwards that also causes a wrinkle running down from the sides of the nose, raised cheeks, and lower eyelids with wrinkles below them tell you? Probably that the person you are looking at is happy. Apart from these three emotions, Paul Ekman (2003) also identified three more basic emotions, such as anger, fear and sadness that seem to have universally identifiable facial expression. In his book, Ekman (2003) provides a detailed analysis and description of the appearance of each of these emotions, but how easy was it for you to guess the emotions from the brief descriptions above? Would it not have been easier to have some pictures? I guess it would, so have a look at the pictures below and try to tell what the people in those pictures feel:

Looking at the first picture, the narrow eyes, the lowered brows, the tensed jaw and the pursed lips seem to tell us that the man is angry, whereas the woman next to him with her widely opened eyes, her eyebrows slightly raised causing wrinkles on her forehead and her slightly opened mouth seems to be worried or afraid. In contrast to this, the second woman has loosely, almost closed eyes, a relaxed jaw and a lower lip that is pushed forward – she displays boredom. Finally, the gentleman in the last picture fiercely presses his lips together so that they disappear almost completely. This also brings out main wrinkles around his mouth and nose and raises his cheeks. He probably feels guilty about something.

Even though eyes never (seem to) lie and seeing the pictures made it easier to gauge the feelings of people than a pure description alone, some of the pictures still might have caused some difficulties (especially the last two pictures), but why? How come that it is more difficult to tell emotions from pictures, even when we consciously focus on them, than in daily life, where we seemingly instinctively know how our friends and colleagues feel when talking about important life events over a pint of beer after work? Should it not be even more difficult, because their facial expression constantly keeps changing throughout the conversation and is by no way ‘frozen’ as in a picture? The answer seems to lie in the question itself: the conversation and the context. The context that is conveyed in the conversation gives us crucial clues about the situation, and what emotions these situations trigger in us. As mentioned in earlier posts about emotions and conditioning, emotions can be traced back to a specific source (object, person, or behaviour), which means that emotions are determined by some cause, or reason. Hence the way in which we perceive and process that reason has an influence on which emotions arise as a consequence.

An important contribution in this context was made by Weiner (1985) and his attribution theory, which explains how people ascribe a specific cause to an action and the resulting emotional responses of such ascriptions. In particular, he used the attribution theory to explain the occurrence of emotions after failure and success and he distinguished three dimensions of the attribution process (Weiner, 1985; cf. Bar-Tal, 1978):

  • Locus: It refers to the location of the cause and can be internal or Does the individual find that their actions are the cause of an event? Or is it something outside them, maybe even someone else that causes the action?
  • Stability:A cause can be stable in the sense that it would not vary significantly over time. For instance, ability in general is often perceived as stable, whereas luck is seen as unstable, because it can vary from event to event.
  • Controllability: This is the amount of control a person perceives themselves to have over an event.

Anger, for example, is determined by the controllability dimension in combination with a negative outcome to the self, such as failure (Weiner, 1985). If someone (including ourselves) is thought to be in control of a situation, but acts in a way results in a negative outcome for ourselves then we get angry. Imagine that you are sitting in a restaurant, waiting for your partner to come to that dinner that you were looking forward to have with him or her all day long. Time goes by, but your partner doesn’t turn up – or maybe he or she turns up very late. How do you feel in that situation? Angry!

How can we explain this with Weiner’s theory? Your partner knew about the dinner and we expected them to turn up, meaning your partner is in control of coming to the restaurant, but they don’t come (their action they can control). This results in you (un‑)patiently waiting for them, which is the negative outcome for you. Additionally, this situation will also trigger blame for a ruined evening, which is attributed to others who were in control of the situation and who could have avoided the negative outcome.

Shame, according to Weiner’s (1985) attribution theory, requires attribution of a negative outcome to an internal cause with low controllability: Singing karaoke (the internal action that you take) when you know that you lack good musical abilities (not controllable characteristic of yourself) might not only result in a bad performance of the song, but also a shameful experience on stage. Similar to these two examples of emotions, guilt, anxiety, happiness and several other emotions can be explained through attribution theory and most of these attributions happen automatically and very fast. Imagine that your friend or colleague, who you meet for a pint after work, tells you that they experienced one of these situations above. You would not need to think very long about how they felt or what emotions they experienced, even if you wouldn’t see their facial expressions. Therefore, it seems that the context and the situational information that we gather, have by far a bigger impact on how we understand other people’s emotions than the facial input alone. The situational context thus plays a big role in our daily experience of emotions and our attribution of blame and responsibility is an important tool in social interaction.

If you found some interest in learning more about telling other people’s emotions from small facial expressions, or also called micro expressions, Ekman also provides a small training chapter in his books Unmasking the face  or telling lies, on which the later TV series Lie to me was based.



Ekman, P. (2003). Unmasking the Face, Cambridge, MA: Malor Books.

Ekman, P. (2009). Telling lies: clues to deceit in marketplace, politics and marriage, New York, NY: Norton.

Weiner, B. (1985). An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological review, 92(4), 548.

Bar-Tal, D. (1978). Attributional analysis of achievement-related behavior. Review of Educational Research, 48(2), 259-271.


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