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Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman
Born February 15, 1934 (1934-02-15) (age 82)
Washington, D.C.
Residence United States
Fields Psychology
Doctoral advisor John Amsden Starkweather
Known for Microexpressions, Lie to Me
Influences Charles Darwin, Silvan Tomkins
Notable awards Named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century based on publications, citations and awards (2001)
Honorary Degree, University of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal (2007)
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Adelphi University (2008)
Honorary Degree, University of Geneva, Switzerland (2008)
Named of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine (2009)
Honorary Degree, Lund University, Sweden (2011)
Spouse Mary Ann Mason, J.D., Ph.D.

Paul Ekman (born February 15, 1934) is an American psychologist who is a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. He has created an "atlas of emotions" with more than ten thousand facial expressions, and has gained a reputation as "the best human lie detector in the world".[1]

He was ranked 59th out of the 100 most cited psychologists of the twentieth century.[2] Ekman conducted seminal research on the specific biological correlates of specific emotions, demonstrating the universality and discreteness of emotions in a Darwinian approach.[3][4]


  • Biography 1
    • Childhood 1.1
    • Education 1.2
    • Military service 1.3
    • Career 1.4
    • Media 1.5
    • Influence 1.6
  • Research work 2
    • Measuring nonverbal communication 2.1
    • Emotions as universal categories 2.2
    • Psychometric tests for studying emotion 2.3
    • Detecting deception 2.4
  • Contributions to our understanding of emotion 3
  • Criticisms 4
  • Publications 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


External video
Conversations with History: Paul Ekman on YouTube, University of California Television, 58:00, April 2008


Paul Ekman was born to Jewish parents[5] in 1934 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and California. His father was a pediatrician and his mother was an attorney. His sister, Joyce Steingart, is a psychoanalytic psychologist who practices in New York.[6]

Ekman originally wanted to be a psychotherapist, but when he was 14, his mother developed a severe mental illness and it had tragic consequences, so he decided to spend his life helping people like his mother.[7]


At the age of 15, without graduating from high school, Paul Ekman enrolled at the University of Chicago where he completed three years of undergraduate study. During his time in Chicago he was fascinated by group therapy sessions and understanding group dynamics. Notably, his classmates at Chicago included writer Susan Sontag, film director Mike Nichols, and actress Elaine May.[8]

He then studied one year at New York University (NYU), earning his BA in 1954.[4] The subject of his first research project, under the direction of his NYU professor, Margaret Tresselt, was group therapy.[9]

Next, Ekman was accepted into the Adelphi University graduate program for clinical psychology.[9] While working for his Master's degree, Ekman was awarded a predoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1955.[9] His Master's thesis was focused on facial expression and body movement he had begun to study in 1954.[9] Ekman eventually went on to receive his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University in 1958, after a one-year internship at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute.[9][10]

Military service

Ekman was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 to serve 2 years as soon as his internship at Langley Porter was finished.[9] He served as first lieutenant-chief psychologist, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he did research on army stockades and psychological changes during infantry basic training.[9][11][12][13]

Also, during this time, he spent four months working with Leonard Krasner, at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital, working on a grant focused on the operant conditioning of verbal behavior in psychiatric patients. Ekman also met anthropologist Gregory Bateson for the first time because Bateson was on staff at Palo Alto. Five years later, Gregory Bateson gave Paul Ekman motion picture films taken in Bali in the mid-1930s to help Ekman with cross-cultural studies of expression and gesture.[9]


From 1960 to 1963, Ekman worked as a postdoctoral student. He submitted his first research grant through San Francisco State College with himself as the principal investigator (PI) at the young age of 25.[14] He received this grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1963 to study nonverbal behaviour. This award would be continuously renewed for the next 40 years and would pay his salary until he was offered a professorship at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1972.

Encouraged by his college friend and teacher Silvan S. Tomkins, Ekman wrote his famous book, Telling Lies, and published it in 1985. He retired in 2004 as professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). From 1960 to 2004 he also worked at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute on a limited basis consulting on various clinical cases.

After retiring from the University of California, San Francisco, Paul Ekman founded the Paul Ekman Group (PEG) and Paul Ekman International.[15] The Paul Ekman Group, "develops and offers online emotional skills-building programs such as the Micro Expression Training Tool, offers workshops, supports researchers in our field, and builds online community around these topics." They do not take individual cases.[16] Also, the PEG offers a micro expression and subtle expression training tool for sale on their website.[17] However, it may be possible to learn to spot micro expressions by quickly flipping through photos of facial expressions. The Paul Ekman Group is currently working on an online interactive tool called "Mapping your Anger Profile" to allow couples to analyze their emotional profile. An emotional profile will examine how quickly one is angered, in addition to how the person experiences emotions such as anger, fear, disgust and anguish.[18] They are also developing a tool titled, "Responding Effectively to Emotional Expressions (RE3)."[15]


In 2001, Ekman collaborated with John Cleese for the BBC documentary series The Human Face.[19]

His work is heavily referenced in the TV series Lie to Me.[20] Dr. Lightman is based on Paul Ekman, and Ekman served as a scientific adviser for the series; he read and edited the scripts and sent video clip-notes of facial expressions for the actors to imitate. While Ekman has written 15 books, the series Lie to Me has more effectively brought Ekman's research into people's homes.[20] Lie to Me has aired in more than 60 countries.[21]

He has also collaborated with Pixar's film director and animator Pete Docter in preparation of his 2015 film Inside Out.[22]


He was named one of the top Time 100 most influential people in the May 11, 2009 edition of Time magazine.[23] He is currently on the Editorial Board of Greater Good magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley. His contributions include the interpretation of scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism, and peaceful human relationships.[24]

Research work

Measuring nonverbal communication

Ekman's interest in nonverbal communication led to his first publication in 1957, describing how difficult it was to develop ways of empirically measuring nonverbal behaviour.[25] He chose the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, the psychiatry department of the University of California Medical School, for his clinical internship partly because Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees had recently published a book called Nonverbal Communication (1956).[9][26][27]

Ekman then focused on developing techniques for measuring nonverbal communication. He found that facial muscular movements that created facial expressions could be reliably identified through empirical research. He also found that human beings are capable of making over 10,000 facial expressions; only 3,000 relevant to emotion.[28] Psychologist Silvan Tomkins convinced Ekman to extend his studies of nonverbal communication from body movement to the face, helping him design his classic cross-cultural emotion recognition studies.[29] Interestingly enough, Tomkins also supervised Carroll Izard at the same time, fostering a similar interest in emotion through cross-cultural research.

Emotions as universal categories

Charles Darwin theorized that emotions were biologically determined and universal to human culture in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872. However, the more popularized belief during the 1950s was that facial expressions and their meanings were culturally determined through behavioural learning processes. This was the belief of some anthropologists including Margaret Mead who had travelled to different countries examining how cultures communicated using nonverbal behaviour.

Through a series of studies, Ekman found a high agreement across members of diverse Western and Eastern literate cultures on selecting emotional labels that fit facial expressions. Expressions he found to be universal included those indicating anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Findings on contempt are less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence that this emotion and its expression are universally recognized.[30] Working with his long-time friend Wallace V. Friesen, Ekman demonstrated that the findings extended to preliterate Fore tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, whose members could not have learned the meaning of expressions from exposure to media depictions of emotion.[31] Ekman and Friesen then demonstrated that certain emotions were exhibited with very specific display rules, culture-specific prescriptions about who can show which emotions to whom and when. These display rules could explain how cultural differences may conceal the universal effect of expression.[32]

In the 1990s, Ekman proposed an expanded list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions that are not all encoded in facial muscles.[33] The newly included emotions are: Amusement, Contempt, Contentment, Embarrassment, Excitement, Guilt, Pride in achievement, Relief, Satisfaction, Sensory pleasure, and Shame.[33]

Psychometric tests for studying emotion

Ekman's famous test of emotion recognition was the Pictures of Facial Affect (POFA) stimulus set published in 1976. Consisting of 110 black and white images of Caucasian actors portraying the six universal emotions plus neutral expressions, the POFA has been used to study emotion recognition rates in normal and psychiatric populations around the world. Ekman used these stimuli in his original cross-cultural research. Many researchers favor the POFA because these photographs have been rated by large normative groups in different cultures. In response to critics, however, Ekman eventually released a more culturally diverse set of stimuli called the Japanese and Caucasian Facial Expressions of Emotion (JACFEE).[34]

By 1978, Ekman and Friesen had finalized and developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to taxonomize every human facial expression. FACS is an anatomically based system for describing all observable facial movement for every emotion. Each observable component of facial movement is called an action unit or AU and all facial expressions can be decomposed into their constituent core AUs.[35] An update of this tool came in the early 2000s when it was renamed F.A.C.E. (Facial Expression, Awareness, Compassion, Emotions) and redeveloped as a tool to learn about identifying and recognizing facial expressions in the human face.

Other tools have been developed, including the MicroExpressions Training Tool (METT), which can help individuals identify more subtle emotional expressions that occur when people try to suppress their emotions. Application of this tool includes helping people with Asperger's or autism recognize emotional expressions in their everyday interactions. The Subtle Expression Training Tool (SETT) teaches recognition of very small, micro signs of emotion. These are very tiny expressions, sometimes registering in only part of the face, or when the expression is shown across the entire face, but is very small. Subtle expressions occur for many reasons, for example, the emotion experienced may be very slight or the emotion may be just beginning. METT and SETT have been shown to increase accuracy in evaluating truthfulness.

Detecting deception

Ekman has contributed to the study of social aspects of lying, why we lie,[36] and why we are often unconcerned with detecting lies.[37] In a research project along with Maureen O'Sullivan, called the Wizards Project (previously named the Diogenes Project), Ekman reported on facial "microexpressions" which could be used to assist in lie detection. After testing a total of 20,000 people[38] from all walks of life, he found only 50 people who had the ability to spot deception without any formal training. These naturals are also known as "Truth Wizards", or wizards of deception detection from demeanor.[39]

Ekman is also working with Computer Vision researcher Dimitris Metaxas on designing a visual lie-detector.[40] His research on deception inspired the television series, Lie to Me, in which he served as a consultant; this was an excellent opportunity for Ekman to spread his work on microexpressions, while not directly accredited for his work, his work did eventually become part of pop culture to some extent as a result of the show. In one issue of Greater Good Magazine Ekman and his daughter Eve were interviewed on parent-child trust. The main topic of the interview focuses on the benefits of trusting your children, how to encourage trustworthy behavior, and what it takes to build trust between parents and children. On February 27, 2009, he was a guest presenter at the Science of a Meaningful Life seminar "Building Compassion, Creating Well-being", along with University of California, Berkeley and Greater Good Science Center Executive Director Dacher Keltner. Together they covered strategies for building resilience, reducing stress, and strengthening relationships with colleagues, clients, family, and friends.

In his profession, he also uses oral signs of lying. When interviewed about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he mentioned that he could detect that former President Bill Clinton was lying because he used distancing language.[41]

Contributions to our understanding of emotion

In his 1993 seminal paper in the psychology journal American Psychologist, Ekman describes nine direct contributions that his research on facial expression has made to our understanding of emotion.[42] Highlights include:

  • Consideration of both nature and nurture: Emotion is now viewed as a physiological phenomenon influenced by our cultural and learning experiences.
  • Emotion-specific physiology: Ekman led the way by trying to find discrete psychophysiological differences across emotions. A number of researchers continue to search for emotion-specific autonomic and central nervous system activations. With the advent of neuroimaging techniques, a topic of intense interest revolves around how specific emotions relate to physiological activations in certain brain areas. Ekman laid the groundwork for the future field of affective neuroscience.
  • An examination of events that precede emotions: Ekman's finding that voluntarily making one of the universal facial expressions can generate the physiology and some of the subjective experience of emotion provided some difficulty for some of the earlier theoretical conceptualizations of experiencing emotions.
  • Considering emotions as families: Ekman & Friesen (1978) found not one expression for each emotion, but a variety of related but visually different expressions. For example, the authors reported 60 variations of the anger expression which share core configurational properties and distinguish themselves clearly from the families of fearful expressions, disgust expressions, and so on. Variations within a family likely reflect the intensity of the emotion, how the emotion is controlled, whether it is simulated or spontaneous, and the specifics of the event that provoked the emotion.


Most credibility-assessment researchers agree that people are unable to visually detect lies.[43] The application of part of Ekman's work to airport security via the Transportation Security Administration's "Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques" (SPOT) program has been criticized for not having been put through controlled scientific tests.[43] A 2007 report on SPOT stated that "simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin".[44] Since controlled scientific tests typically involve people playing the part of terrorists, Ekman says those people are unlikely to have the same emotions as actual terrorists.[43] The methodology used by Ekman and O'Sullivan in their recent work on Truth wizards has also received criticism on the basis of validation.[45]

Other criticisms of Ekman's work are based on experimental and naturalistic studies by several other emotion psychologists that did not find evidence in support of Ekman's proposed taxonomy of discrete emotions and discrete facial expression.[46]

Ekman received hostility from some anthropologists at meetings of the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association from 1967 to 1969. He recounted that, as he was reporting his findings on universality of expression, one anthropologist tried to stop him from finishing by shouting that his ideas were fascist. He compares this to another incident when he was accused of being racist by an activist for claiming that Black expressions are not different from White expressions. In 1975, Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, wrote against Ekman for doing "improper anthropology", and for disagreeing with Ray Birdwhistell's claim opposing universality. Ekman wrote that, while many people agreed with Birdwhistell then, most came to accept his own findings over the next decade.[14] However, some anthropologists continued to suggest that emotions are not universal.[47] Ekman argued that there has been no quantitative data to support the claim that emotions are culture specific. In his 1993 discussion of the topic, Ekman states that there is no instance in which 70% or more of one cultural group select one of the six universal emotions while another culture group labels the same expression as another universal emotion.[42]


  • Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (Times Books, 2008) ISBN 0-8050-8712-5
  • Unmasking the Face ISBN 1-883536-36-7
  • Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (Times Books, 2003) ISBN 0-8050-7516-X
  • Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (W. W. Norton & Company, 1985) ISBN 0-393-32188-6
  • What the Face Reveals (with Rosenberg, E. L., Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-510446-3
  • The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions (with R. Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-19-508944-8
  • Darwin and Facial Expression: A Century of Research in Review ISBN 0-12-236750-2
  • Facial Action Coding System/Investigator's ISBN 99936-26-61-9
  • Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness (Penguin, 1991) ISBN 0-14-014322-X
  • Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research ISBN 0-521-28072-9
  • Face of Man ISBN 0-8240-7130-1
  • Emotion in the Human Face ISBN 0-08-016643-1
  • Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (Sussex, UK John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1999)

See also


  1. ^ Morin, Amy (October 28, 2015). "8 Biggest Myths About Lying According to the Best Human Lie Detector in the World". Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  2. ^ Haggbloom, S. J. et al. (2002). The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century. Review of General Psychology. Vol. 6, No. 2, 139–15. Haggbloom and his team combined 3 quantitative variables: citations in professional journals, citations in textbooks, and nominations in a survey given to members of the Association for Psychological Science, with 3 qualitative variables (converted to quantitative scores): National Academy of Science (NAS) membership, American Psychological Association (APA) President and/or recipient of the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, and surname used as an eponym. Then the list was rank ordered. Ekman was #59. (A list of the first 25 names, in order, can be found under "Historically important writers" at .)
  3. ^ Freitas-Magalhães, A. (2012). Facial expression of emotion. In V. S. Ramachandran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Vol. 2, pp.173-183). Oxford: Elsevier/Academic Press. ISBN 978-008-088-575-9.
  4. ^ a b "Paul Ekman". American Psychologist 47 (4): 470–471. April 1992.  
  5. ^ "JEWISH PSYCHOLOGISTS". Retrieved 28 October 2015. 
  6. ^ "'Paul Ekman". American Psychologist 47 (4): 470–471. April 1992.  
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Conversation with Paul Ekman, p. 1 of 5". 2004-03-11. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ekman, P., A life's pursuit. In The Semiotic Web '86: An International Yearkbook, Sebeok, T. A.; Umiker-Seboek, J., Eds. Berlin, Mouton De Gruyter, 1987; pp 3-45.
  10. ^ Eissner, B. Paul Ekman PH.D. '58, '08: East Meets West.
  11. ^ American Psychologist (April 1992),"Paul Ekman" 47 (4), pg. 470-471
  12. ^ Ekman, P.; Cohen, L.; Moos, R.; Raine, W.; Schlesinger, M.; Stone, G. (1963). "Divergent Reactions to the Threat of War". Science 139: 88–94.  
  13. ^ Ekman, P.; Friesen, W. V.; Lutzker, D. R., Psychological Reactions to Infantry Basic Training. Medicine, U. o. C. S. o., Ed.
  14. ^ a b Ekman, P., A life's pursuit. In The Semiotic Web '86: An International Yearkbook, Sebeok, T. A.; Umiker-Seboek, J., Eds. Berlin, Mouton De Gruyter, 1987; pp 3-45
  15. ^ a b "About Paul Ekman Group LLC | Paul Ekman Group, LLC". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  16. ^ "The Ekman Group and The Lightman Group | Paul Ekman Group, LLC". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  17. ^ "Training | Paul Ekman Group, LLC". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  18. ^ ">> 2013 » Thursday, December 12". The Evolution of Psychotherapy. 2013-12-12. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  19. ^ "Lifeboat Foundation Bios: Dr. Paul Ekman". 2002-09-16. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  20. ^ a b The (Real!) Science Behind Fox's Lie to Me Popular Mechanics [Online], 2009.
  21. ^ Lie to Me' | Paul Ekman Group, LLC"'". 2009-01-21. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  22. ^ Dacher Keltner & Paul Ekman (2015-07-03). "'"The Science of 'Inside Out.  
  23. ^ The 2009 TIME 100: Paul Ekman, Scientists & Thinkers. Time. April 30, 2009.
  24. ^ Freitas-Magalhães, A. (2009). The Ekman Code or in Praise of the Science of the Human Face. In A. Freitas-Magalhães (Ed.), Emotional Expression: The Brain and The Face (Vol. 1, pp. ix-xvii). Porto: University Fernando Pessoa Press. ISBN 978-989-643-034-4.
  25. ^ Ekman, Paul (1957). "A methodological discussion of nonverbal behavior.". Journal of Psychology 43: 141–149.  
  26. ^ Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations - Jurgen Ruesch, Weldon Kees - Google Boeken. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  27. ^ Ruesch, J.; Kees, W., Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations. University of California Press, 1956: Berkeley, 1956; p 205.
  28. ^ "Watch Lie To Me: Expressions: Introduction online | Free". Hulu. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  29. ^ "FACS Investigators Guide - Acknowledgements". Retrieved 2 September 2009. 
  30. ^ Matsumoto, David (1992) "More evidence for the universality of a contempt expression". Motivation and Emotion. Springer Netherlands. Volume 16, Number 4 / December, 1992
  31. ^ Ekman, P.; Friesen, W.V. (1971). "Constants across cultures in the face and emotion." (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17: 124–129.  
  32. ^ Ekman, Paul (1989). "The argument and evidence about universals in facial expressions of emotion". In H. Wagner & A Manstead. Handbook of social psychophysiology. Chichester, England: Wiley. pp. 143–164. 
  33. ^ a b Ekman, Paul (1999), "Basic Emotions", in Dalgleish, T; Power, M, Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (PDF), Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons 
  34. ^ Ekman, P.; Matsumoto, D. "Japanese and Caucasian facial expressions of emotion and neutral faces.". 
  35. ^ Ekman, Paul. "FACS vs. F.A.C.E.". 
  36. ^ Book: Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness
  37. ^ Ekman, P., 1996: Why don't we catch liars
  38. ^ Camilleri, J., "Truth Wizard knows when you've been lying", Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 2009
  39. ^ "NPR: The Face Never Lies". 
  40. ^ "Meet the New Interrogators: Lockheed Martin" by Pratap Chatterjee, CorpWatch report, November 4th, 2005.
  41. ^ "The lie detective: San Francisco psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions" by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 16, 2002.
  42. ^ a b Ekman, Paul (1993). "Facial Expression and Emotion". American Psychologist 48 (4): 384–392.  
  43. ^ a b c Sharon Weinberger. "Airport security: Intent to deceive? : Nature News". Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  44. ^ Hontz, C. R., Hartwig, M., Kleinman, S. M. & Meissner, C. A. Credibility Assessment at Portals, Portals Committee Report (2009).
  45. ^ Bond, Charles F & Uysal, Ahmet. (2007). On lie detection "wizards". Law and human behavior, 31.
  46. ^ Russel and Fernandez-Dols (1997). The Psychology of Facial Expression . Cambridge University Press.
  47. ^ Lutz, C.; White, G.M. (1986). "The anthropology of emotions.". Annual Review of Anthropology 15: 405–436.  

External links

  • Interview
  • Official site
  • Complete bibliography
  • A biography from Lifeboat Foundation site
  • Video of Freitas-Magalhaes´s 2008 Ceremony of Doctorate Honoris Causa to Paul Ekman, "The Ekman Code or the Eulogy to the Human Face"
  • The Naked Face,
  • Interview (History Channel transcript)
  • Interview (Financial Times)
  • Greater Good Magazine: Interview between Ekman and daughter Eve on parent-child trust
  • Recording of a conversation with Daniel Goleman
  • Detecting Deception, American Psychological Association
  • PaulEkmanGroup Facebook
  • PaulEkmanGroup Twitter
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