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The Study of Facial Expressions

By: Libby Pelham BA - Updated: 17 Mar 2017 | comments*Discuss
Paul Ekman Facial Action Coding System

Paul Ekman earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University in 1958. After a two year stint in the Army, he returned to the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute where he had done his internship. He began his research on facial expressions in 1954. Most of his research focused on emotion and facial expression. For his work in this field, he was named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.


Part of Ekman’s research focused on microexpression. Microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that is shown by both humans and chimpanzees when trying to suppress an emotion. Ekman studied people from all over the world to identify these seven primary facial expressions:

Happiness: raised lip corners and cheeks, narrowing of the eyelids to produce crow’s feet in the corners.

Sadness: narrowing eyes with the eyebrows brought together, mouth turned down at the corners with the chin pulled up.

Fear: mouth and eyes open, eyebrows raised with nostrils flared at times.

Anger: lowered eyebrows, wrinkled forehead, tensed eyelids and lips.

Disgust: nose scrunching, upper lip raised, eyebrows downcast with eye narrowing.

Surprise: dropped jaw, relaxed lips and mouth, eyes wide open with slightly raised eyelids and eyebrows.

Contempt: side of the mouth raised into a sneer or smirk.

Microexpressions don’t last long (about 1/25th of a second) and most people may not even be aware of them, but the subconscious mind picks up on it. The subconscious uses these subtle microexpressions to help determine a person’s real emotions. For example, a smiling politician may have a flash of a sneer on his face before the smile erupts. This brief sneer may consciously be overshadowed by a longer smile, but may lead the voter to choose another candidate based on that subliminal microexpression.

Facial Action Coding System (FACS)

Ekman later worked with fellow researcher W.V. Friesen to map out the 43 facial muscles responsible for those seven microexpressions. There, muscles were coded into a system called Facial Action Coding System (FACS). This coding system allows human coders to manually code almost every possible facial expression. This can be useful in determining how depressed a person is or how much brain trauma one has suffered.

Human Interaction Lab

How can the research that Ekman compiled be practical in today’s society? Ekman believes that correctly interpreting another’s facial expressions can lead to better relationships. He has also been hired by movie studios such as DreamWorks and Pixar to teach their animators the taxonomy of expression to create more realistic characters. But, there is another big use of these microexpressions.

In a world fearful of terrorism, the interpretation of facial expressions can be helpful to law enforcement officials in determining suspicious behaviour detected either in person, in a photograph, or on video tape surveillance.

In face, years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) turned down Ekman when he offered to teach their agents how to read microexpressions to determine suspicion and deception. Recently, the CIA was among several other agencies that have now turned to Ekman for help. He has also taught Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents how to read faces to determine if someone is lying during questioning.

For more than 30 years, Ekman has sought to understand humans better through their facial expressions. His work has earned him many accolades, including the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1991, the American Psychological Association's highest award for basic research.

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Paul Ekman should collaborate with Kent Kiel, the expert on psychopathy. Their combined contributions might advance that field of study quite quickly.
Matt - 9-Aug-15 @ 2:06 PM
@Jane. You should try your local universities as they're the places mostly like to allow you to something like this. It depends on what qualifications/level you've already achieved and in what subjects, also on the funding that you or the educational establishment can get for that topic.
proff - 18-Jun-14 @ 10:41 AM
I just want to know if I could like do my Masters in this or learn more as Im really interested. C Could you please recommend something?
Jane - 17-Jun-14 @ 7:36 AM
Was wondering if someone looks like they are holding back tears wouldn't the whites of eyes turn read?
Isabelle - 1-May-14 @ 11:28 PM
Reading micro expressions "must be" a natural inborn gift??? I've interpreted faces from the age age of 4 yrs old.That micro second expression right before the facade expressions to hide the truth.It can be creepy at times, as to what words are expressed that do not align with what "I seen and sensed".The truth eventually is revealed, that's proof to me that micro expressions never lie!
Detective Honeycutt - 23-Apr-14 @ 5:46 PM
That was seriously the stupidest question ihave ever had the privledge of reading in my whole entire life. My friend smiles all the time, should he seek professional help? Its like saying my friend is truly happy everydaywhats wrong with him haha
Reall? - 17-Nov-13 @ 8:46 PM
I have a friend who constantly smiles while talking and does not realize it.His wife of over 30 years says she does not notice it.All of our mutual friends agree that our friend smiles over 80 percent of the time while relating a story to us or in casual conversation.Is this something he should seek professinal help with?
none - 17-Jul-11 @ 5:52 AM
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