Paul Ekman’s Theory of Emotion

June 6, 2019

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Paul Ekman is an American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco who is a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. He is the creator of 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. Ekman (buy his books from Amazon) conducted groundbreaking research on the specific biological correlations of specific emotions, demonstrating the universality and discreteness of emotions in an evolutionist Darwinian approach.

Ekman's taxonomy of Basic Emotions

The framework described by Paul Ekman is influenced by Charles Darwin and Silvan Solomon Tomkins, although he himself stated that he did not accept in tot what either of them said. Ekman sustained there are three meanings for the term “basic” as you can read his argumentation in the next quote:

Ekman considers that emotional expressions are crucial to the development and regulation of interpersonal relationships. His studies demonstrated that facial expressions play an important role in the formation of attachments and are involved in the formation, acceleration or deceleration of aggressive behaviour. 

Although at first he distinguished between six basic innate emotions, Ekman added a seventh one, contempt, which he believed we acquire through learning, especially social learning. After including this culturally acquired emotion, he adapted the name of his taxonomy to Universal Emotions. 

Actor Tim Roth portraying facial expressions, and their explanation
Actor Tim Roth portraying facial expressions and their explanation

Detecting Deception

Ekman has contributed to the study of social aspects of lying, and why we lie and why we are often unconcerned with detecting lies. He first became interested in detecting lies while completing his clinical work. As detailed in Ekman’s Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, a patient he was involved in treating denied that she was suicidal in order to leave the hospital. Ekman began to review videotaped interviews to study people’s facial expressions while lying. 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 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 behaviour. 

For introductory information on the subject of emotion, please read Introduction to the theories of Emotion.

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