A tiled collection of headshots

Reading Faces of Emotion

Adrianne Carter guest contributors, headshots Leave a Comment


Guest Writer: Adrianne Carter, The Face Whisperer

Today we are honoured to welcome guest writer, the immensely talented Adrianne Carter, The Face Whisperer.

Adrianne is the UK's foremost expert in the field of facial coding, which is the process of measuring human emotions through facial expressions. This can be applied to better understand people’s reactions to visual stimuli. This of course of great value to me as a headshot photographer - my clients need to project the appropriate emotion in their headshots to attract the desired attention. In fact most of the time spend during a shoot with me is reviewing exactly what we have so far and if it is saying what it needs to say.

Adrianne's credentials speak for themselves. She has worked with global brands; Coca Cola, L'Oreal, Disney, Unilever, Samaritans and she guest lectures on Consumer Psychology, Behavioural Economics, and Environmental Psychology in over 25 different countries.

Introduction to Facial Reading

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin published a book following his examination of the visual expression of emotions in humans and animals. In it he deduced that emotions are expressed similarly in all humans (and even some other species), giving rise to the conclusion that facial expressions are innate rather than learned within a culture or environment.

In the 1960s, Dr.Paul Ekman undertook extensive, world-wide research and concluded that Darwin was right. He postulated that there are 7 fundamental emotions that are expressed through the face in humans and that this expression is universal. Whether you are born in Birmingham, Borneo or even born blind, we all have the same facial expressions : fear, contempt, sadness, happiness, surprise, anger and disgust.


The triggers for those facial expressions may be very different for every single person, of course, but the way we display the emotion on the face is universal according to Dr Ekman’s research.

In 2014 an article in the New York Times, “What faces can’t tell us” sought to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions.

For me, one of the key points to come out of this is that not all facial expressions are universal; universality of every facial expression has never been claimed by any expert in the field of facial emotions in any research that I have come across.

The 7 emotions that Dr.Ekman described do seem to remain unchallenged in their scientific rigour.

There are over 100 studies that have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions since Dr.Ekman’s original work on universality which support his original research conclusions.

So, we can be pretty sure that faces will give the onlooker the right emotional cues, no matter who's face it is.

Internal vs. External Emotions

As we have seen in the intro to this article, people’s faces change as they have emotional reactions and, in fact, so does their body language. But no-one can read minds and tell you what a person is thinking... ever... period. The emotional signals given from people's faces, though, do give us clues as to what is going on for them.

If you are interested in reading people better, then consciously trying to decipher what is going on for them is a skill you can learn.

When analysing people what we often talk about internal vs. external emotional reactions. If someone starts laughing, they could be laughing at a memory they have just been reminded of or happened to be thinking about (an internal reaction). Alternatively they could be simply laughing at something someone has said or at some event happening in the room (an external reaction.)

As facial readers, we often don't know whether the reaction is internally or externally focused. So how do we find out?

The answer is...questions.

Yes, questions, questions and more questions. Cleverly used questions help you to decipher the person and gain some insight to their point of reference.

The Business Benefits of Getting it Right

You may think that you’ve managed fine up to this point and you think you’re pretty darn good at reading people without any training at all!

But the problem is you don't know what you don't know.

Example 1
Take the customer service industry: in a high-end hotel restaurant and bar, 16 of the front of house staff were trained to recognise facial expressions of emotion. For the following month the sales in the restaurant and bar both saw an uptick of 20%.

In your business, are you really recognising when your clients are genuinely happy or are they just being polite? It's very hard to tell.

If they are genuinely happy with your product or service, they will be repeat customers and tell others about it. If they are just being polite, they don’t generally come back and they don’t recommend you.

Example 2
200 shoppers were asked to help themselves to a free product at the end of research project as a thank you. The products were offered as in the picture below:-


Box A showed the picture of the lady with a genuine smile and Box B showed the picture of the same lady with a polite, but false smile.

The boxes were kept stocked with exactly the same levels of the same product and were swapped from left to right during the day to take out any left or right selection bias.

The result? 70% of shoppers chose from Box A with the genuine smile displayed and none of the 140 shoppers could explain why they chose from Box A rather than Box B.

The insight? Genuine emotions attract on a subconscious level and lead to 3 times the engagement. This is one example but it has been shown time and time again.

So, if you can gain a 20% uplift or 3 times the engagement by getting it right then the benefits to staff education on facial expression is very clear, and it's clear that you and your team need to be portraying the best headshots to the outside world to gain that engagement yourselves.

But Is It Reliable?

Can we rely on facial expressions of emotion to tell us how a person really feels? This is actually a really big question and made my brain hurt.

From my own research over the last 10 years and analysis of over 10,000 faces I know that the face signals emotions and I absolutely trust that.

As I've mentioned above, what I don’t know is what a person is thinking or why they are thinking it. I know they are displaying an emotion that I can potentially identify. It is my job as a behaviourist to understand more, understand where the emotion has its foundation in that persons psyche and what that means to them (not what it means to me).

When analysing people, it is vital to take the whole context into account and to use a very important question: “What else could this mean?” This will help you decipher what you are noticing in either the face or the body.

What is reliable is how an expression will be perceived explicitly or implicitly when it is displayed to anyone, which affects how other people respond to you and whether someone warms to you or takes a dislike.

Read my related article on this very subject

Your Unconscious Headshot Brain - Does your LinkedIn headshot, or any public image of you in general, actually matter all that much? Do you (or does anyone else) really judge a book by its cover…I mean really? In this enlightened, twenty-first century age we’re more informed, right? We know about unconscious bias so we can actively try to combat it. We know that we mustn’t ...


In this article I've given a basic explanation of reading facial emotions, what some of the pitfalls are and what some of the benefits are to knowing more.

Hopefully you will really start to notice other people’s faces and body language and start to interpret what your see and what it could mean in the context you are seeing it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, and if you would like to know more about me or about what I can do for your business, please leave your comments below or get in touch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *