Look at a person who is near you right now and imagine that they just ripped a loud fart that you brings words like “horrendous” or “revolting” to your mind.  I’m talking about the kind of fart that is so repulsive that it could clear the room,  the kind of fart that turns your stomach just a little bit.  As you look at that person and judge what kind of person they are, I want you to freeze your face and notice the facial muscles that have been engaged in response to the event.

Without using a single word, it is likely you conveyed to the person how disgusted you are with them and their scent through your facial expressions.  It is possible that you chose to display the emotion of fear as you questioned your ability to hold back the vomit in your mouth.  Fear is certainly on my mind right now as I write this on a plane with a 300 lb gorilla of a man in the middle seat next to me, who I am positive is letting this caliber of gas fly.  We are going to take a look at the emotion of disgust and how people communicate this emotion through expressions.

Disgust is one of the 7 Universal Emotions that Paul Ekman identified in his research that he conducted in the 1950’s.  Dr. Ekman travelled around the globe, visiting a number of isolated and remote cultures as he sought to develop a deeper understanding of the face.  There will be a post written later on the difference between micro and macro expressions and how we can use the knowledge that we have gained through our observations, but first we must understand the expression itself.

The reason I chose the example of a fart to lead into the post is because disgust can be defined as a repugnance to something extremely offensive or a strong distaste for something.  Disgust was also chosen as the first emotion to describe because, depending on where you are in the world and depending on who you are, the emotion of disgust (or any emotion) could be caused by a variety of factors.  Just because you perhaps don’t like the fragrance of flatulence, other cultures may worship the scent, while being completely repulsed by the perfume or cologne you are wearing.

As we begin to describe the facial expression and muscle movements involved in disgust, this is a good time to state that we will not know what triggered the emotion, just that it is being felt.  It will be on you, as the observer, to decide how to proceed with the insight into their state of mind and identify the cause of the emotion.

All of the possible muscle movements involved with the emotion that Paul Ekman identified are listed below.  Research conducted by the Department of Defense has identified that some movements are requirements that must be present for you to classify the expression, while other muscle movements are optional characteristics.  The movements that are required have been italicized.

Upper Face:

–       The eyebrows will be lowered.

–       When the cheeks raise and the brow lowers in extreme cases, this could cause crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes.

Middle Face:

–       In disgust the Naso-Labial Furrow is deepened and will be shaped like an “inverted U.”

  • The Naso-Labial Furrow is the crease or wrinkle that comes off the side of your nose and angles down towards your mouth
  • This U or Bell Shape can be compared to the shape it takes when you smile.  In a smile, the deepened Naso-Labial Furrow is spread across the face.

–       There will be wrinkles across the bridge of the nose as the nose is scrunched together.

–       The nostril wings will rise up.

Lower Face:

–       The upper lip is going to be raised.  This could happen with the lips still closed, with the lips parted or with one side of the upper lip raised higher than the other.

As you begin to examine faces for elements of disgust, be sure that you have taken the time to establish a baseline for that person.  To identify a deepened naso-labial furrow, you first have to know how deep their baseline is.  Click here for a reminder on baseline characteristics in the face.

To develop your ability to recognize the emotion, first start by practicing the expression in front of a mirror.  Also use a variety of intensities and examine the differences from mild disgust to absolute repulsion.  You can also consider using “method acting,” where you think of experiences or thoughts that would make you feel scared, and witness the changes in your facial expression.

Understanding emotions can provide you with a wealth of knowledge about a person.  You can observe a group of people and begin to assess how the conversation is going by analyzing the reactions people are showing.  This can also help you out while deployed in a foreign country and can compensate for a less-skilled interpreter as you can get immediate feedback from the people you are interacting with, before you even hear the translation of what they said.

The series of “face-posts” will continue with an explanation of all 7 Universal emotions as well as considerations for applying this information.  If you have any comments or questions, let us know.

References for information from this post came from:

“Emotions Revealed” Paul Ekman. St Martin’s Press, New York, NY. 2007

(Specifically Chapter 8 – Disgust and Contempt)

“Telling Lies” Paul Ekman

(Specifically Chapter 5 – Facial Clues to Deceit)

Paul Ekman’s Online Training:

Micro-Expression Training Tool – Advanced

Subtle Expression Training Tool