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Facial Action Coding System Inspired Tutorial.

Based on the research of Paul Ekman, Charles Darwin, and Duchenne de Balogne. (See the “Facial Action Coding System: Megan Fox Edition for the specific action units mentioned here) I’ve generated a set of CGI faces with various facial expressions on them and have included some explanations about the facial action units in use. The application I used to generate the faces is called FACEGEN. A key concept developed by Paul Ekman is the concept of ‘microexpressions’, fleeting expressions that are flashed across your face involuntarily for about 1/5 of a second. Since you cannot control them they are a tool used in lie detection. For more information on the ‘REAL’ Facial Action Coding System check this link out. If you would like to purchase the real facs system, you can do so by following this link. Paul Ekman’s personal website can be found here. I would highly recommend the ‘MicroExpression training’ provided via the paul ekman website if you are interested in refining your ability to read people.

The Smile

 The smile is an elusive expression because it is commonly flashed for politeness or to conform to social norms/rules. (Asians tend to smile when they are upset) Paul Ekman calls these Display Rules. What you will notice in common between the polite and the true smile is that both use action unit 12 (The lip corner puller). The lip edges are lifted towards the ears. The main difference between the polite and the real smile is the contraction of the eye muscles that surround the eye socket. This is called action unit 6 (The Cheek Raiser). For instance some people will display ‘laugh lines’ or ‘crows feet’ when they smile. The outer parts of the eye tend to be pulled down. Thus the Eyes also smile when you truly smile, in terms of actually having joy while you smile. What is interesting about the eye related muscles is that apparently they are involuntary in most people. Thus the only way to fake a real smile is to think about something that you would actually smile about, then flash a smile. For a bit of history, the true smile is also called the duchenne smile. This was a French neurologist who did experiments with electrical stimulation of the face. When he told the model to smile he got the Action Unit 12 smile, but when he told the patient a joke, the patient generated an eye muscle contraction in addition to the lip corner raiser muscle.


Anger is an expression that comes in several combinations that involve the inner eyebrow muscles and sometimes the flashing of teeth. This particular example I chose because it captured the common muscle action unit that occurs for both open and closed mouth versions of anger. The action unit that in question is action unit 4 (The brow lowerer). As you can see in the above picture, the inner eyebrow is lowered and brought closer together. The key action here is the converging of the eyebrows in a downward direction. Anger is an interesting expression. while I was completing my mba I came across an article in a consumer behavior class that stated that there was an asymmetric recognition of the anger emotion. I believe this article was from the ‘economist’. Men and women in general appear to be much more sensitive to the facial expression of anger. Specifically they can pick out anger faster than the other emotions. What is interesting is that men apparently can spot anger faster than women, and that in general anger on a male face was easier to spot than on a female face. There are some arguments that it was perhaps a good thing to be able to spot angry males in order to avoid them or sense their intentions.


According to paul ekman’s book “Emotions Revealed”, surprise and fear are two of the most difficult to distinguish between. In the research it appears that most cultures have a difficult time distinguishing between fear and surprise. Apparently literate cultures are the only ones that differentiate between fear and surprise. To help you distinguish between fear and surprise we should look at the action units in question. The action units used are the following: Action Unit 1(Inner Brow Raiser), Action Unit 2 (Outer Brow Raiser), Action Unit 5 (Upper Lid Raiser), Action Unit 25 (Lips part – Jaw Drop) Action Units 1 and 2 raise the eyebrows in an upward direction Action Unit 5 raises the eyelids Action Unit 25 opens the mouth in a vertical manner. The key here is the vertical movement of the mouth. The fear expression is similar but the mouth stretches horizontally. This is explained in the next section on fear. One could theorize that the raising of the eyelids allows you to take in more information by maximizing the field of view in the eyes.


The Fear emotion is closely related to the surprise emotion as stated earlier. The key difference here is the stretching of the mouth in a horizontal direction. The action units used are the following: Action Unit 1(Inner Brow Raiser), Action Unit 2 (Outer Brow Raiser), Action Unit 5 (Upper Lid Raiser), Action Unit 20 (Lip Stretcher), Action Unit 25 (Lips part – Jaw Drop) Action Action Action Action Units 1 and 2 raise the eyebrows in an upward direction Unit 5 raises the eyelids Unit 25 opens the mouth in a vertical manner. Unit 20 stretches the lips towards edges of the face.

As you can see it would be easy to confuse fear and surprise if you didn’t notice the difference in the lip stretching. For both expressions you may have the mouth opening, however the key thing to pay attention to is the horizontal lip stretching.


Contempt is a unique expression in because it is the only naturally occurring expression that is asymmetric. Specifically it only happens on one side of the face, either the left or right. Usually when you see any of the other expressions described here, you expect it to be symmetric across the face from left to right. The action unit involved in this is Action Unit 12 (lip Corner Puller) The corner of either the left or right lip will be pulled up and towards the ears. This is basically a half smile or smirk. The intent behind this expression is one of superiority, you may see this when someone is arguing with you and they think they have the upper hand or moral high ground This emotion of contempt is interesting because according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, contempt is the most significant indicator of negative energy. Specifically he talks about the ‘4 horsemen’ of emotions observed in couples. If a couple shows defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, and criticism in an unusually high proportion (vs good feelings), then it is a strong predictor of relationship ‘fail’. Of those 4 emotions, the one with the most weight is contempt. Similar to criticism, this however is applied from a superior plane as gladwell states it. Talking down to someone per se.


Disgust is an emotion that appears to show up in other species in the animal kingdom. Wolves and dogs bare their teeth when threatened and so do humans as well as other primates. The action units used in this expression are as follows: Action Unit 9 (Nose Wrinkler) and Action Unit 10 (Upper Lip Raiser) The nose wrinkles and the upper parts of the lip raise up to expose the canine teeth. Think of a dog snarling. This emotion is a powerful one, it’s the one you may see when you smell something that is rotten, or when you see someone whose behavior you absolutely abhor, or when you see something… to put it directly ‘disgusting’. In the Fox television show lie to me, the character ‘dr. lightman’ (who is actually based on paul ekman) states that, if you see this expression in your spouse, it’s going to be game over for your marriage. That may or may not be true, but it is an interesting thought.


Sadness is expressed by flexing two action units. Action unit 1 (Inner Brow Raiser) Action Unit 15 (Lip Corner Depressor) The key here is to pay attention to the inner eyebrows being raised but not the outer eyebrows. Also the lip edges are pulled down towards chin.


Shame is expressed by a combination of two action units but since I did not previously illustrate them in my “Facial Action Coding System: Megan Fox Edition” I won’t name them explicitly. Generally the individual will position their head in a downward fashion while looking either to the left or right as shown in the illustration. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------If you are interested in learning more about facial expressions I would recommend checking out Paul Ekman’s “Emotions Revealed” or Charles Darwin’s “The expressions of the emotions in man and animals”