Micro-Facial Expressions 102 – Anger, Disgust and Contempt




Anger is another of the basic emotions, one that we have all felt. Early in the previous century, psychologists believed that human aggression was a direct result of frustration (Dollard, 1939), and that anger was simply the social component to frustration build-up.

Anger is particularly easy to spot on a human face as it is a stark warning – if you see someone looking at you with this expression you will be acutely aware of its implications.

Tim Roth from Fox’s brilliant show ‘Lie to Me’ displaying Anger

The most obvious way to spot anger is narrowing of the eyes: squinting. This is because this narrows the field of vision, the proverbial ‘seeing red’. As a natural predator it allows us to focus on a target. People feeling this emotion will tighten their lips and narrow their eyebrows as well.


Often confused for Anger, this emotion is a little more complicated to spot, and in my opinion has more implications in social life. Disgust as a social emotion stems from our need to avoid poisonous and unpleasant smells and food. If you smell something that you do not like it will be obvious to anyone around you, and it is very hard to avoid displaying this emotion as it is hardwired into our brains.

Spotting this emotion is not difficult, and if you look for the nostrils flaring upwards it will be pretty obvious. This is based on our nervous system blocking off our nasal passages to avoid unpleasant smells, and a person displaying this emotion will wrinkle their noses, and often squint. Think if it as trying to experience as little of an unpleasant thing as possible, most often wrinkling the nose, raising of the upper lip, squinting and turning the head away.


Contempt is the least researched of Ekman’s Universal emotions, and as such is not as enshrined as the other six. However contempt is one of the more interesting and in the western world is far easier to spot. It is a uni-lateral expression, and these types of body language cues are most often an indication that the person is being deceitful or false. A shrug with a single shoulder is another example of a uni-lateral body language, and it often indicates a lack of confidence in what one is saying. With both it is more of an “I don’t know” statement.

Normally contempt is visible on the face as a kind of half smile. One corner of the mouth is drawn inwards and upwards, signifying an extreme dislike that is different to disgust and anger. It shows a feeling that someone or something is inferior, lacking or worthless, and is a very dangerous emotion, and is more often the expression associated with hate than Anger or Disgust would be.

Contempt: image sourced from Ekman’s Micro-Expression Training Tool

Next article will be on Fear and Surprise, two more emotions that are sometimes confused but, as you can tell, have very different implications.


  1. The last picture is not contempt. Contempt is when it looks like someone is smiling with only the left or right side of their mouth.

    1. Hi Johnny,
      Actually this one is contempt, it’s taken from Ekman’s Subtle Expression picture set, and although it isn’t as obvious as the one’s you’ve likely seen with the unilateral smile it is definitely contempt. This is probably more like what you will see, with the lips being pulled in and only a slight change in facial muscle tone.

  2. Hi there Johnny is actually right it is not contempt. Charlie you are right to in saying its from the Ekmans subtle expression set but if you look closely at the pictures it’s actually slightly or controlled anger. Reference :::: ekmans subtle expression set plus also pictured in “theguardian”
    sat 7th march 2009 11.01 AEST.

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