Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman is a contemporary psychologist who studies the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. He is well known for his ability to detect lies.

Professional Life

Paul Ekman was born in Washington, DC, in 1934 and lived in many states throughout his childhood. He studied at both New York University and the University of Chicago. He graduated from Adelphi University in 1958 with a PhD in clinical psychology. 

Ekman interned at the Langly Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute and later worked as a consultant there. He was a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Franciso. He retired from both the Langly Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute and the University of California in 2004.  Ekman has received multiple awards, including Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health on six separate occasions, and he was named one of TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

Contribution to Psychology

Ekman is best known for his work with facial expressions. He theorized that not all expressions are the result of culture. Instead, they express universal emotions and are therefore biological. He discovered that several facial expressions of emotion, such as fear, anger, sadness, joy, and surprise were universal and that people could easily read these expressions in people from different cultures. 

In collaboration with Dr. Maureen O’Sulllivan, Ekman studied the micro-expressions displayed by people in order to detect if they were telling the truth or lying. These micro-expressions are tiny, involuntary alterations in facial expression that can indicate anxiety and discomfort. The study, called the Wizards Project, discovered that only a relatively small percent of people can recognize deception naturally. Ekman called these people the Truth Wizards. 

Ekman created the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which categorized every expression, not only on the face but also throughout the rest of the body. Ekman has studied the science and social influence behind lying and what significance lying has to our mental well-being.

From his research working with tribal people in New Guinea, Ekman devised a list of universal emotions and expressions that he believed were present in all humans. They include surprise, sadness, happiness, disgust, anger, and fear. Ekman concluded that there were both negative and positive emotions that were universal to all humans, although not all were visible in facial expressions. This list of universal emotions includes:

  • contempt
  • contentment
  • amusement
  • excitement
  • embarrassment
  • relief
  • guilt
  • pride in achievement
  • shame
  • satisfaction
  • sensory pleasure

Ekman has continued his work in the area of facial expression by applying it to trust issues, particularly relating to parent-child relationships. He is a contributor to the Greater Good Magazine and works with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

The popular television series Lie to Me was based upon Ekman's work. The main character, Dr. Cal Lightman, is trained in detecting deception and is loosely based upon Ekman himself.

Controversy and Criticism

Ekman's theory of universal emotions has been heavily popularized, but some researchers have criticized his theories, noting for example that no population is fully isolated and that cultures tend to influence one another. Others have argued that his experiments are not rigorously controlled or that test subjects do not universally recognize emotions, but simply recognize them more frequently than they fail to recognize them.

Last Update: 07-27-2015

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