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Paul Ekman (born 1934) is a psychologist and has been a pioneer in the study of emotions and facial expressions.


Ekman was born in 1934 in Washington, DC, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey], Washington, Oregon, and Southern California. He is the son of a pediatrician.

Ekman's carefully conducted experiments were a model of elegance for other psychologists and, in part, led to him being designated one of the 100 most important psychologists of the twentieth century by the American Psychological Association. He is considered one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century.[1] The background of Ekman's research analyzes the development of human traits and states over time (Keltner, 2007).

He retired in 2005 as professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).


Ekman's work on facial expressions had its starting point in the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins.[2] Ekman showed that contrary to the belief of some anthropologists including Margaret Mead, facial expressions of emotion are not culturally determined, but universal across human cultures and thus biological in origin. Expressions he found to be universal included those indicating anger, disgust, fear, joy, 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.[3]

In a research project along with Dr. 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 15,000 people from all walks of life, he found only 50 people that 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. [4]

He developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to taxonomize every conceivable human facial expression. Ekman conducted and published research on a wide variety of topics in the general area of non-verbal behavior. His work on lying, for example, was not limited to the face, but also to observation of the rest of the body.

In his profession he also uses verbal 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.[5]

Ekman has contributed much to the study of social aspects of lying, why we lie,[6] and why we are often unconcerned with detecting lies.[7] 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. Ekman is also working with Computer Vision researcher Dimitris Metaxas on designing a visual lie-detector.[8]

Emotion classification

Ekman devised a list of basic emotions from cross-cultural research on the Fore tribesmen of Papua New Guinea. He observed that members of an isolated culture could reliably identify the expressions of emotion in photographs of people from cultures with which the Fore were not yet familiar. They could also ascribe facial expressions to descriptions of situations. On this evidence, he concluded that the expressions associated with some emotions were basic or biologically universal to all humans.[9] The following is Ekman's (1972) list of basic emotions:

However in the 1990s Ekman expanded his list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions not all of which are encoded in facial muscles[10]. The newly included emotions are:

  1. Amusement
  2. Contempt
  3. Contentment
  4. Embarrassment
  5. Excitement
  6. Guilt
  7. Pride in achievement
  8. Relief
  9. Satisfaction
  10. Sensory pleasure
  11. Shame

As a researcher and an authority, Dr. Ekman had a steadfast rule that he and his associates would not comment on public officials, those seeking public office, litigants, or those with impending litigation.

Educational innovations

Paul Ekman was recently featured in Greater Good Magazine's latest issue on Trust. In this issue, Ekman and daughter Eve are 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. Ekman is a contributor to Greater Good Magazine, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.

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

See also



  • Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (Times Books, 2008) ISBN 0805087125
  • Unmasking the Face ISBN 1883536367
  • Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (Times Books, 2003) ISBN 080507516X
  • Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (W. W. Norton & Company, 1985) ISBN 0393321886
  • What the Face Reveals (with Rosenberg, E. L., Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0195104463
  • The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions (with R. Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 0195089448
  • Darwin and Facial Expression: A Century of Research in Review ISBN 0122367502
  • Facial Action Coding System/Investigator's ISBN 9993626619
  • Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness (Penguin, 1991) ISBN 014014322X
  • Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research ISBN 0521280729
  • Face of Man ISBN 0824071301
  • Emotion in the Human Face ISBN 0080166431
  • Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (Sussex, U.K. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1999)

Book Chapters


  • Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1969) The repertoire of non-verbal behaviour: categories, origins, usage and coding, Semiotica 1: 49-98.
  • Ekman, P., Levenson, R.W. and Frieson, W.V. (1983) Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions, Science 221: 1208-10.
  • Ekman, P., Sorenson, E.R. and Friesen, W.V. (1969) Pan cultural elements in facial displays of emotions, Science 164: 86-8.


  1. 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.
  2. FAQS Investigators Guide - Acknowledgements. URL accessed on 2 September 2009.
  3. Matsumoto, David (1992) "More evidence for the universality of a contempt expression". Motivation and Emotion. Springer Netherlands. Volume 16, Number 4 / December, 1992. Abstract
  4. NPR: The Face Never Lies.
  5. "The lie detective: San Francisco psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions" by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, September 16, 2002.
  6. Book: Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness
  7. Ekman, P., 1996: Why don't we catch liars
  8. "Meet the New Interrogators: Lockheed Martin" by Pratap Chatterjee, CorpWatch report, November 4th, 2005.
  9. Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding. Semiotica, 1, 49–98.
  10. Paul Ekman (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Keltner, D. (2007). Evolutionary approaches to emotion. California: UC Berkeley.
  • 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 (pp.ix-xvii). Porto: University Fernando Pessoa Press. ISBN 978-989-643-034-4.

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