Ten Key Emotions in
John Habershon PhD FRSA
This is a broad but well-defined category which is invaluable for testing
communications. Often advertising is not designed to evoke particular
emotions, such as humour. Identifying moments of active engagement enables
us to measure how much the communication grabs and holds the attention of
When a communication captures attention we can see two effects: it provokes
thought and prompts a release of energy in the respondent.
Signs of thinking include quick eye movement, the head tilting to listen more
carefully and stroking of the lips, or the chin, and working the mouth with the
effort of thought.
Secondly, it is simply not possible to be really engaged by something and not
express it in body movement. There must be outlet for energy in the body
when we see or hear something we find really interesting, something which
stimulates us. Signs such as nodding the head, movement of arms and head,
and especially leaning toward the object of interest are significant.
This is an emotion brought on by repetition, or at least the expectation
of repetition, so it is more common in ads over 60 seconds, or press ads
shown to the respondent which are too similar.
The gaze becomes unfocused, the eyes look blank. The respondent is not
simply uninterested, she is experience negative feelings, as we see from
her compressed lips and the downturned corners of her mouth.
This is an unusual emotion to be found in communication testing – there is
usually insufficient time to become bored. Disengagement is a more com-
mon response to creative material which fails to stimulate.
Some TV ads we have tested, such as those for charities featuring starving
children, respondents find distressing - even making people look away
from the screen. This is not the same as experiencing sadness. It is much
less about thinking and more about an immediate bodily response to
Confront someone with an uncomfortable thought and we see signs of
the flight response – looking for a place of escape (rapidly looking away
in different directions), shutting out the world (closing the eyes), self-
comforting (cradling or stroking the head), or reducing the threat by making
oneself a smaller target (turning side on, or sinking the head into the neck).
Head movement is an important signal of discomfort – fast involuntary
shakes as an outlet for negative feelings.
This is the simplest to recognise of our ten emotions. All that is required is
for the respondent to look away from the TV ad, or program.
This glance away can be extremely fast and often is. A sidewards glance
can take place in less than a second.
It’s a little respite from what is being viewed.
In this clip we can see signs of disengagement and displeasure in the way
Beth fidgets, touches her hair and moves her mouth.
She stretches her mouth with tightly compressed lips. Then she purses her
lips and looks away from the screen for a fraction of a second.
How does the body respond to a negative feeling?
The mouth is a major player in this particular drama. A closed mouth is a natural
defensive posture – socio-biologists would say it is about preventing anything
coming in to the mouth. We see the viewer watching the ad with her lips
compressed, brow slightly lowered and the mouth pursed in displeasure.
Other signs include: twitches of the nose, eyes and mouth; quick changes in
the eye gaze direction; a lack of focus or narrowed eyes; a defensive, side-
on posture; tension in the body, seen in stillness or stiffness; shifting the body
away from the object being considered.
Displeasure is closely related to puzzlement since not ‘getting’ something is
closely aligned to finding it irritating. The key difference lies in the actions of the
How do we distinguish between humour and pleasure? When something is
funny (not simply enjoyable) energy is released in the body. When something
amuses us it produces a broad smile, the sound of laughter perhaps, but always
movement in the body.
Humour brings a range of bodily responses, from raising the shoulders and
tucking in the chin, to leaning back and opening up, or scrunching up in a ball
of private enjoyment.
Humour is fleeting, unlike pleasure which can stay on the face for some time.
A chief difference between finding something funny, or just pleasurable is that
the response to humour momentarily takes us away from the object of humour.
With pleasure we see a sharper focus on the object; with humour the eyes
glaze over and the gaze momentarily loses focus. We go in to our own space,
and this is sometimes demonstrated by closing the eyes for a moment.
Smiling is almost always a feature – from the faintest corner-of-the-mouth
twitch, to a broad beaming smile that creases the eyes. Pleasure is signalled by
a sustained smile.
The eyes also tend to be larger when someone is relaxed and happy (‘wide-
eyed’) as they take in the maximum of visual information. In moments of
pleasure we sometimes see a rapid widening, the ‘eye pop’.
Positive emotions are also associated with relaxed muscles in body and in facial
muscles, particularly in and around the mouth.
We often see a confident non-defensive posture, an ‘opening up’ of the body,
arms relaxed by the side, facing the person, or the screen, full on.
One of the easiest emotions to see, puzzlement is marked by the lowering of
the brow and narrowing of the eyes.
There might also be movement as the person sits back slightly to take a pause
Puzzlement is not necessarily always a negative emotion, of course, far from it.
In many communications it’s a sign of engaging the viewer before revealing the
answer, or even provoking thought leading to a more satisfying understanding
– ‘ah I get it!’
However, when we also see the mouth compressed or stretched into a
frown, then we have irritation. Some things are simply annoyingly difficult to
We talk of being ‘deflated’ and a sad person appears as though some of the air
has been taken out of them. Sadness shows itself in a downturned posture, a
drop of the shoulders, and a lowering of the head.
The characteristic sad mouth is a stretching of the upper lip down and jutting out
the bottom lip. A look away might happen, as the respondent tries to bring the
symptoms of sadness under control.
Like discomfort, sadness has an effect on bodily movement as the respondent
deals with the emotion, perhaps rubbing the eyes and moving the head back
and forth. The eyes appear slightly glazed over, with an unfocused gaze. The
respondent can sometimes be seen working his mouth, indicating the struggle
against showing emotion.
A sudden unexpected fact can activate a wave of energy to the respondent.
Typically within a second or two we might see the respondent close her eyes to
take in the information, then the eyes narrow, before both eyes open wide.
Raised eyebrows are of course the key sign, together with widened eyes as the
respondent takes in more of the object which has surprised her. This might be
followed by a leaning back and a tilt up of the head, giving pause for thought.
Surprise can show itself by (literally) turning the head; the respondent might
also lean back for a moment to reflect on what she has just seen.
Manual Facial Coding
Reading Emotions App
55 subtle and mixed emotions - each
with a slow motion video, a set of stills
and a detailed description.
Our expertise comes from eight years and thousands
of hours analysing the facial expressions and body
language of consumers.
At each second of a TV ad or programme, or within two
seconds of a still image being shown, we record the
This builds to a detailed set of metrics on the incidence
of each emotion, the key moments when emotions are
identified, comparisons between the effectiveness of
ads, video games and other creative material.