NetFACS: using network science to understand facial communication systems

Alexander Mielke*, Bridget Waller, Claire Perez, Alan Victor Rincon, Julie Duboscq, Jerome Micheletta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Understanding facial signals in humans and other species is crucial for understanding the evolution, complexity, and function of the face as a communication tool. The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) enables researchers to measure facial movements accurately, but we currently lack tools to reliably analyse data and efficiently communicate results. Network analysis can provide a way to use the information encoded in FACS datasets: by treating individual action units (the smallest units of facial movements) as nodes in a network and their co-occurrence as connections, we can analyse and visualise differences in the use of combinations of action units in different conditions. Here, we present ‘NetFACS’, a statistical package that uses occurrence probabilities and resampling methods to answer questions about the use of action units, action unit combinations, and the facial communication system as a whole in humans and non-human animals. Using highly stereotyped facial signals as an example, we illustrate some of the current functionalities of NetFACS. We show that very few action units are specific to certain stereotypical contexts; that action units are not used independently from each other; that graph-level properties of stereotypical signals differ; and that clusters of action units allow us to reconstruct facial signals, even when blind to the underlying conditions. The flexibility and widespread use of network analysis allows us to move away from studying facial signals as stereotyped expressions, and towards a dynamic and differentiated approach to facial communication.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1912-1927
Number of pages16
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Early online date9 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2022


  • facial signals
  • communication
  • social network analysis
  • facial action coding system
  • emotion
  • method


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