Paul Ekman on Torture

As seen in the Huffington Post

I was approached soon after 9/11 by a senior psychologist, who held office in APA, to participate in the government’s newly developing interrogation program. I declined, although I had already developed techniques for establishing better emotional connections with interviewees, through my work on nonverbal behavior, facial expressions and gestures. And I had done research on what punishments work best on prisoners.

In the late 1950’s when I was drafted into the Army, serving as First Lieutenant and Chief Psychologist at Ft. Dix New Jersey I performed an experiment to evaluate the most effective punishment for AWOL offenses. I was able to match prisoners on a number of variables, randomly assigning half a month in the stockade (the standard punishment up until then) or three hours a day of extra labor but no imprisonment. Recidivism six month later was 60% higher among those who went to the stockade, and based on that finding the Commanding General changed the standard punishment for first AWOL to extra labor but no imprisonment.

Such an experiment cannot be performed now to evaluate the competing advocates of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture and those, like me, advocating humane interviewing. (I did get the chance once to train interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and they reported back that my humane, emotional connection interviews were very successful.) If we can’t run an experiment to find out, and many including me would argue that even conducting such an experiment in which so-called harsh methods were to be used on some of the prisoners violates ethical guidelines, then we must do the right thing, take the ethical path, do what is expected of democracies. Only humane interviewing should be conducted by any member of APA.

Paul Ekman Alumni Awards

This summer, Dr. Paul Ekman received two awards from two universities dear to his heart:

UCSF’s 150th Anniversary Alumni Excellence Award and University of Chicago’s Professional Achievement Award

Below are photos from both ceremonies.






The Science of ‘Inside Out’

As seen on the New York Times

FIVE years ago, the writer and director Pete Docter of Pixar reached out to us to talk over an idea for a film, one that would portray how emotions work inside a person’s head and at the same time shape a person’s outer life with other people. He wanted to do this all in the mind of an 11-year-old girl as she navigated a few difficult days in her life.

As scientists who have studied emotion for decades, we were delighted to be asked. We ended up serving as scientific consultants for the movie, “Inside Out,” which was recently released.

Our conversations with Mr. Docter and his team were generally about the science related to questions at the heart of the film: How do emotions govern the stream of consciousness? How do emotions color our memories of the past? What is the emotional life of an 11-year-old girl like? (Studies find that the experience of positive emotions begins to drop precipitously in frequency and intensity at that age.)

“Inside Out” is about how five emotions — personified as the characters Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy — grapple for control of the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley during the tumult of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. (One of us suggested that the film include the full array of emotions now studied in science, but Mr. Docter rejected this idea for the simple reason that the story could handle only five or six characters.)

Riley’s personality is principally defined by Joy, and this is fitting with what we know scientifically. Studies find that our identities are defined by specific emotions, which shape how we perceive the world, how we express ourselves and the responses we evoke in others.

But the real star of the film is Sadness, for “Inside Out” is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness. Riley loses friends and her home in her move from Minnesota. Even more poignantly, she has entered the preteen years, which entails a loss of childhood.

We do have some quibbles with the portrayal of sadness in “Inside Out.” Sadness is seen as a drag, a sluggish character that Joy literally has to drag around through Riley’s mind. In fact, studies find that sadness is associated with elevated physiological arousal, activating the body to respond to loss. And in the film, Sadness is frumpy and off-putting. More often in real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help.

Those quibbles aside, however, the movie’s portrayal of sadness successfully dramatizes two central insights from the science of emotion.

First, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.

But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation. For example, studies find that when we are angry we are acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice.

We see this in “Inside Out.” Sadness gradually takes control of Riley’s thought processes about the changes she is going through. This is most evident when Sadness adds blue hues to the images of Riley’s memories of her life in Minnesota. Scientific studies find that our current emotions shape what we remember of the past. This is a vital function of Sadness in the film: It guides Riley to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity.

Second, emotions organize — rather than disrupt — our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals.

Other studies find that it is anger (more so than a sense of political identity) that moves social collectives to protest and remedy injustice. Research that one of us has conducted has found that expressions of embarrassment trigger others to forgive when we’ve acted in ways that momentarily violate social norms.

This insight, too, is dramatized in the movie. You might be inclined to think of sadness as a state defined by inaction and passivity — the absence of any purposeful action. But in “Inside Out,” as in real life, sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss. We see this first in an angry outburst at the dinner table that causes Riley to storm upstairs to lie alone in a dark room, leaving her dad to wonder what to do.

And toward the end of the film, it is Sadness that leads Riley to reunite with her parents, involving forms of touch and emotional sounds called “vocal bursts” — which one of us has studied in the lab — that convey the profound delights of reunion.

“Inside Out” offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Paul Ekman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Note from the Paul Ekman Group (PEG): The face offers the best window on how people are feeling. Improving your ability to recognize emotions will increase the intimate understanding that allows you to connect with other people. Research found that people who learn to spot micro expressions are also better liked by co-workers. We provide tools to spot concealed emotions and a new tool to learn how to best respond to how another person is feeling on our website


A Force for Good

A note from Dan Goleman:

As I was interviewing the Dalai Lama for my book A FORCE FOR GOOD: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, Paul Ekman’s work came up repeatedly. The Dalai Lama places great importance, for one, on Paul’s mapping the emotions – a tool that can help people get a better grip on their own. Then there’s the Cultivating Emotional Balance program, which has helped countless teachers and others mange their inner world better.

As Paul makes clear in his book, there is the challenge the Dalai Lama poses to all of us, moving toward the ideal of universal compassion, an attitude that values every person on Earth equally.

In A FORCE FOR GOOD the Dalai Lama suggests we start with an emotional transformation toward greater calm, clarity, and compassion. Then, with this inner rudder, act to improve the world he spells out what our world needs in many spheres – ranging from transparency to dispel corruption in government and business, to a more caring economics, to healing the planet.

And he urges us to act now, in whatever way we can – even if we won’t see the results in our lifetime. We can change the future over the course of this century, if we all act to create this force for good, he urges.

Intriguingly, the arguments the Dalai Lama makes are not based in Buddhism, but rather in science.  He supports his views by drawing on the countless meetings he has had over the decades with world-class scientists – especially Paul’s work.

Paul has spent more than 60 hours in one-on-one conversation with the Dalai Lama. As Paul puts it, they are like brothers.

Of all the many achievements over the course of Paul’s career, this may be the most remarkable. For one, even those close to the Dalai Lama’s inner circle find it difficult to schedule time with that ceaseless world traveler. For another, when Richard Davidson and I were considering which scientists to invite to participate in the Mind and Life meeting on “Destructive Emotions,” we had misgivings about Paul, despite his being at the top of our list.

Our hesitation had to do with Paul’s tough-mindedness as a scientist – we were unsure what his chemistry might be with the Dalai Lama – and we know that beyond first-class science, personal rapport made these meetings work. And, as Paul has said himself, at first during the meeting he had his own doubts. But on the third day there was a personal encounter with Paul and the Dalai Lama – when Paul introduced his daughter Eve, and the Dalai Lama held on to Paul’s hand as they spoke.

There was an almost electrical charge, as Paul has put it – and a subsequent deep change in Paul’s being. Where he had been quick to anger, as Paul describes, after that encounter he didn’t even have an angry thought for about nine months.

While most of us can’t hope for such a drastic inner transformation, any of us can begin the inner journey toward more peace and clarity.  As for myself, I find that meditation has offered a way to renew that state daily.  Cultivating Emotional Balance offers a range of approaches to emotional hygiene. There are countless methods.

But as the Dalai Lama emphasizes, that’s a first step. By also enhancing our own compassion, we become better able to act in ways that will add our energy to the force for good he calls us to create.

8 Myths about Lying

by Paul Ekman, Ph.D. as featured on Forbes.

Myth #1 – Everyone lies.

Not so. Not about serious matters, not about lies which if caught could result in the end of a relationship, employment, freedom, large sums of money or life itself. Those are what I call high stake lies; they are the lies that the police and the FBI and insecure spouses are trying to catch. They are the lies of the criminal, the terrorist, the philanderer, the embezzler, and what the cops call ‘bad guys’.

Myth #2 – No one lies.

Hardly. Nearly everyone tells low stake lies. Politeness, for example, or praising the host for a dull dinner and conversation, flattery, and so forth. No one really expects to be told the truth in those situations.

Myth #3 – Women can spot lies better than men.

No they can’t; most people are terrible lie catchers, fooled by high stake lies again and again. Often they want to believe the liar. Do you want to find out your lover is unfaithful, your children are using hard drugs, the person you recommended for the job is embezzling? These are hard truths to accept, so the target of the lie often cooperates in being misled because the truth is too painful.

Myth #4 – Psychopaths are perfect liars.

Psychopaths are no more skillful at lying than anyone else, but they are so charming we want to believe them, and we do.

Myth #5 – Looking up and to the left is a sign of lying.

The research shows that which way you look before answering a question is unrelated to whether you are lying.

Myth #6 – Micro facial expressions are proof of lying.

Fleeting facial expressions do reveal an emotion that is being concealed, and that is a kind of lie, but innocents under suspicion may conceal their fear, or anger about being suspected. You need to find out why they are concealing their emotions in order to judge whether it is sign they are guilty of the offense you are investigating.

Myth #7 – Scientists have discovered a silver bullet, which works on everyone, to betray a lie.

We don’t have Pinocchio’s nose. Nothing exists which, if absent, means the person is truthful and if present is proof of lying. The polygraph, the so-called lie detector, is just a little bit better than chance. Yet it does have its use in a criminal investigation—if only one of the suspects fails the test, he or she is the first one to investigate, bearing in mind that this suspect may be the most nervous or worried about not being believed, though innocent.

Myth #8 -There is no way to spot lying from how people behave.

There are what I like to call ‘hot spots’ which indicate you are not getting the full story. If you really do want to catch a liar there are nearly thirty different hot spots to pay attention to. Micro facial expressions and gestural slips are the two most important ones, but there are many more.

For example, a slight shrug, usually of one shoulder, coinciding with a verbal statement of confidence is an example of a ‘hot spot’ revealed in a gestural slip. Something is awry.  Another is a slight head shake no, only very slight, when saying ‘yes.’

#PictureCompassion: What Compassion Looks Like to You!

We’ve asked our community to join in on our movement for Global Compassion by participating in our #PictureCompassion campaign. After looking through many inspiring photos, we’ve selected our top 5 favorites!

      PictureCompassion11    PictureCompassion13

Grandma    Kiss


A Note from Dr. Paul Ekman: 

As our submitted photos show, compassion is the desire to help someone who is suffering or to prevent suffering entirely. I call the impulse to relieve immediate suffering “proximal compassion”. Acting to prevent future suffering I call “distal compassion”. The first, proximal, really engages our emotions, whereas distal compassion relies more heavily upon cognition as we try to forecast dangers to avoid. As the photos which were sent in show, compassion is an action taken to help someone who is suffering or to prevent suffer. I call the former, acting to relieve immediate suffering, proximal compassion. Acting to prevent future suffering I call distal compassion. Proximal is more emotionally laden, distal relies upon cognitive activity more, with accurate social forecasting of the dangers to avoid.


Thank you to all who participated. We appreciate your efforts in helping us create global compassion!


Winning Photos

Photo of two girls embracing, Submitted by Edner Baumhardt & Lauren Lacerda Nunes

Photo of homeless man near car, Submitted by Nilasis Sen

Photo of Grandmother, Submitted by Richard Munn

Photo of small girls kissing, Submitted by Adek Tanjung

Photo of T&T’s National Triathlon Championships 2014, Submitted by Shaun Rambaran


To learn more about the Paul Ekman’s work on compassion you can watch his new webisode series “Developing Global Compassion” or read his latest book “Moving Toward Global Compassion“, both featuring his one-on-one conversations with the Dalai Lama.

#AskEkman: How do I become a facial expression expert?

July 2014

The most popular questions we receive at the Paul Ekman Group are questions relating to which courses and universities are best equipped to promote a career in becoming an expert in facial expressions and emotion. The answer to this question depends on what level of education you are seeking, and what topic interests you. To help you on your journey, we’ve put together a series of short answers from Dr. Paul Ekman.

If you are in high school and are interested in emotion:

Apply to a college or university at which there is an expert on emotion and/or facial expression. The Psychology Department at UC Berkeley has four faculty members who work on emotion, one of whom studies facial expression. The University of Wisconsin has a program on emotion and compassion, with emphasis on neuroscience substrates. If you are really ambitious, here is our list of over 250 major contributors to the field of emotion.

If you are an undergraduate, interested in emotion and/or facial expressions:

I assume you are not already at a college where there is an emphasis on emotion, so you’re going to have to do a lot of reading. If facial expression is your major interest, check the work of Professor Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley. If it’s the physiology that drives or underlies emotion, try Professor Robert Levenson, UC Berkeley and Professor Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin.

If you are seeking a graduate school to obtain a Ph.D.:

We recommend the same two universities above, UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. But there are many other choices; emotion is a popular topic these days!

If you are high school student or undergraduate interested in deception:

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to recommend. Mark Frank in the Communications department at University of Buffalo, and Steve Porter at University of British Columbia, Okenagan Campus, both do research on the behavioral clues relevant to lying. Porter has challenged some of my work, but I respect his work. Frank is continuing many of the studies and approach I initiated.

If you are not currently a student:

PEG has established an international network of Licensed Delivery Centers (LDCs) through Paul Ekman International which deliver courses in Emotional Skills and Competencies (ESaC) and Evaluating Truthfulness and Credibility (ETaC). These cater to a wide range of professionals in their public courses and corporate programs. Please contact Paul Ekman International for further information, dates, and locations near you.

We wish you much success in your studies! For more information and helpful links, please visit our FAQ page.

To have your questions answered by Dr. Paul Ekman, submit them by using the hashtag #AskEkman on Twitter.











Is Snowden Lying?

June 2014

Many readers have asked whether Snowden was lying in his recent NBC-TV interview, knowing I have worked for the government and corporations spotting lies by how someone behaves. When I attempt to evaluate truthfulness I need to be the one asking the questions, able to ask follow up questions, allowed as many hours as I need, and the person I am interviewing must not have had time to prepare or be coached. Even if these requirements were to be met, I maintain a strict policy: I never evaluate anyone involved in litigation. In our judicial system it is the responsibility of the jury not an expert to determine truthfulness, difficult as that often is when only yes/no questions can be asked, and there is plenty of time for answers to be prepared. So, under these circumstances, I simply cannot comment on Snowden’s veracity. Still, some of Snowden’s claims merit consideration.

Snowden claims longer and more serious employment than was previously revealed by the government, and many attempts to be a whistle-blower, which, he says, were met with resistance by the NSA. The next day after the NBCTV interview the NSA denied these claims, as did Senator Diane Feinstein, head of the Senate committee that oversees intelligence capabilities. We don’t know who to believe.

Snowden claims he would not be granted a fair, open trial with access to all the charges and witnesses against him if he were to return to the United States. That is probably true, because a public trial, or even a closed trial in which all the information against him were to be revealed, might help our enemies if they were to find out. This leaves Snowden in limbo, the resolution of which has not been suggested by anyone.

Snowden also said that our mobile phones can be turned on by the intelligence agencies of the industrialized world, without our knowledge or consent, to listen to what we are saying. No one has denied this claim! When I was a Fulbright lecturer at Leningrad State University in 1979, people whose homes I visited would immediately put their telephones in the bathroom, convinced that otherwise the KGB would hear what we said. Do we need to take the same precaution against the NSA?

No one is claiming Snowden forged the NSA documents he stole, which revealed previously unknown threats to privacy. I would like to see an impartial judicial authority, perhaps an international one, review those revelations, charged with suggesting regulations of whose privacy can be invaded without notice or consent. They might also consider how to resolve the question of whether there is any way for Snowden to get a fair trial, and if not how should the issue of whether he should be punished be resolved.

We need public discussion of the tradeoffs involved if and when privacy is invaded, to be certain the public knows what is being done, if not in every specific instance, then in general. If what I am suggesting is not feasible there must be some way to change where this matter presently stands – in a state of confusion about charges and countercharges.


For more on Privacy Invasion, read “Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?” by Paul Ekman featured on his blog, Face It!

Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?

May 2014

Where you go on the Internet, where you travel on city streets, that and more is all up for grabs

Google? NSA? Walmart? It soon may be possible for them to track your emotions in addition to your whereabouts without your knowledge or consent. No regulations from the government to prevent massive surveillance are on the horizon. Already companies are selling software that identifies your name just by looking at your face. The New York Times Business section on Sunday May 18th ran a front page article about the threat of privacy invasion now that software programs identify not only who you are by using hidden cameras to scan your face but then also link to your Facebook posts and other sources of information about you which you didn’t know you were providing.

The next step in privacy invasion

The Times article didn’t mention the next step in privacy invasion, just around the corner – new computer programs that can link your identity to how you are feeling at the moment. What was your emotional reaction when you read the latest news about … Edward Snowden, Kim Kardashian, or President Obama? How did you feel about the latest packaging of Tide, or Trojans? Which TV ad for which politician got the biggest emotional kick from you?

Automated computer recognition of moment-to-moment emotions, even attempts to hide emotions, is nearly here. Crude or incomplete versions are already in use, and better ones will soon be available. I know about all of this having developed the first comprehensive offline tool for measuring facial expressions, and my participation in a company that is developing automated emotion recognition based on my work.

People wearing Google Glass may know not only who you are but also how you are feeling

Despite Google’s attempt to prevent this use of their product, something similar will become available from a copycat manufacturer that reveals the same information. The real threat to privacy comes from the surveillance cameras that are nearly everywhere, when they are able to know our most personal feelings about whatever we are looking at, or the emotions that we are feeling as we remember something from our past, recent or distant. These automated “emotion sensors” won’t know what triggered our emotions, just what emotions we are feeling.

The clever use of this invasive technology will attempt to provoke us by triggering engineered emotional events, without prior consent for having our emotions triggered, or having our emotions read, or having our emotions linked to our identity and everything that is already stored about us (what we buy, where we go, who we live with, and who knows what else).

Can our privacy be rescued from invasion?

Can our identity be hidden, the emotions shown on our face not read?

Joseph J. Atick, one of the pioneers of identity recognition, was quoted in the  N.Y. Times as saying that companies using face recognition to identify us should post notices they are doing so; they should seek permission from a consumer before identifying them, and use that information only for the purposes the consumer has consented to. Those are very modest protections, in my judgment, but still opposed by some of the companies selling the recognition software.

More protection is needed when it comes to reading our emotions

Our consent has to be obtained by more than a public notice that it is being done, and more than clicking on a website’s fine print. A specific, explicit consent to have our emotions monitored by a particular company for a specific purpose, that is time limited, probably to one- or two-hour period, should be obtained. Reading children’s emotions should require parental consent for each occasion it is done. And when a government agency such as the NSA reads our emotions, some regulation, better than ones currently in place, need to be established to protect our privacy.

I am a face scientist, not an attorney, data wonk or legislator. I hope this blog will alert all those responsible for the protection of the public to the urgent need for establishing privacy guidelines.


Brian Williams of NBC News talks with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the global impact and debate sparked by his revelations. Read more about this exclusive here.

Global Compassion and the Nigerian Schoolgirls

May 2014

Why do we care when we see the Nigerian schoolgirls who are the prisoners of Boko Haram?

We DO watch. Most of us don’t change channels. Why?

There is nothing which ordinarily might catch our eyes: no one is badly injured, or beautifully dressed, or posing in a sexy way. And no one is asking us to do something: give money; write a letter, or anything else. Usually when we are shown suffering somewhere else in the world, like the Japanese Tsunami disaster, we are asked to donate to those in distress. With the schoolgirls, we can only feel compassion for them; there is nothing we can do to help them.

While we watch the Nigerian story many of us imagine the despair, the anger, and frustration the parents of those poor girls must be feeling. Even if we aren’t parents ourselves, we feel a concern for those desperate mothers and fathers. When I became a parent I felt that my heart had been opened; I became concerned about the welfare and suffering of all children, not just my own.

Global Compassion

When we see those captured schoolgirls on the screen we feel what I call “global compassion”. Despite our cultural and linguistic differences, we are able to feel the pain of their situation. What we do share is a sense of common humanity; they are fellow human beings and they and their parents are suffering.

In the history of human existence the capacity to witness the suffering of totally unknown and faraway people is but a blip, a moment in our time on this planet made possible by technology. Compassion was shaped as a human characteristic for family members — the Dalai Lama and Charles Darwin both thought the mother’s compassion for her child is the seed of compassion. We don’t have to learn it; it is given, to parents.

Familial and Familiars Compassion

When I lived and worked in an isolated preliterate culture in New Guinea fifty-seven years ago they were still using stone implements. It was not possible to witness the suffering of total strangers. Instead compassion was felt for members of their own family, fellow villagers, or related tribes. I called this “familiars compassion ”. Although the research has not and cannot now be done, I suspect that everyone in that culture felt both familial and “familiars” compassion, and never had an opportunity to experience compassion for strangers. For there were none.

Compassion in Today’s World

Today, even though we can observe the distress of others far away and unlike us, not everyone feels “global compassion”. Some do, but generally, when the victim appears different from us in every way, fewer of us feel moved to take kindhearted action.

Perhaps the Nigerian schoolgirls are an exception, overcoming the usual obstacles to compassion because their plight touches on our own hardwired parental concern. The pull is unavoidable. Or maybe it is just the novelty that grabs us; have we ever before seen so many young girls kidnapped?

More about the nature of compassion can be found in my new ebook Moving Toward Global Compassion. Additionally, new videos of my discussions on compassion with the Dalai Lama will appear on my website soon. Sign up for my newsletter to be notified when the first “webisode” becomes available.

Spotting Poker Bluffs

May 2014

The game has changed now that TV broadcasts people playing poker.

In the old days not a word was spoken, and that tradition continues today in some venues. But lies had to be spotted; bluffs called. I learned about this from winners of the International Poker Tournament held each year in Las Vegas. It costs $15,000 to enter the fray, and then, after two weeks of serious gaming, the winner walks away with a million bucks.

Two of the winners, in different years, sought my advice knowing that I am an expert in spotting liars. I told them I had not played poker since junior high, and had never watched poker being played. They thought that didn’t matter. It turned out they were wrong.

You can’t win without bluffing, but you can’t win if you can’t spot the bluffers.

The key to winning, each said, was spotting bluffs. Once you know they have a bad hand, if you have a good one, you keep raising the stakes causing the bluffers to lose a lot of money when they are called. I asked them how they did it, given what each said about what happens during a game. Everyone wears large dark glasses, blocking most of the face. Not a word is spoken. That worried me since I had found that detecting lies using my methods got easier the more words that were spoken. What did they rely on if they couldn’t see most of the face and no clues from the words or sound of the voice?

Cards are picked up and laid down, cards are examined, and a movement of the cards on the table signals a wish for another card. They had learned the differences in those few movements to detect when someone is bluffing. But they were not going to tell me how they did it. They wanted me to tell them anything additional they could use to spot the bluffer.

Are poker winners wizards of deception detection?

I tested each of them by showing them a videotape I had made in which you saw 30 people lying or telling the truth. Some were lying about whether they were watching a film of gruesome surgery or beautiful flowers. Some were lying about a strongly held opinion about the justification of capital punishment. And others lied about whether they had taken money which was not theirs. I had shown this test to nearly 15,000 people in every profession you can think of. Over 95% of the people I tested did not much better than chance. But would these poker winners be in the 5%, who I called the wizards of deception detection? No; they were in with the 95%! They were highly skilled in interpreting a very special vocabulary of movements in this silent game of poker they played. Those movements did not occur when people were interviewed.

If people talk while they play their hand, if they claim to have a great hand when they don’t, then what I rely on to catch liars – very brief (micro) and very small (mini) facial expressions, gestural slips, voice changes, and so forth — will probably work. But the stakes have to be high: there has to be a lot to lose or gain. And there has to be conversation during and about the game. For the moment, the silent game of poker remains a mystery to most of us.  Mum’s the word.  And it’s also the best how-to tip for playing poker and getting away with bluffs.

Authorized Lying and Uncovering Deceptions

No one objects to trying to spot poker bluffers; in a sense it is authorized by the rules of the game. Catching liars is also authorized when interrogators question criminal suspects. Although told they have to answer truthfully, confessing crimes they committed, interrogators expect suspects will lie if they think they can get away with it. Although torture is not allowed, interrogators can trick the suspect to get at the truth. Our supreme court has upheld convictions based on confessions obtained by lying to the suspect – for example, claiming another suspect has already confessed, or their fingerprints were on the gun, when neither is true. (Incidentally, that is not allowed in England and most other European countries).

Medical patients are not always truthful, sometimes concealing problems they are embarrassed about having, and often lying about whether they really did use all the medications that were prescribed. No one objects when the doctors or nurses uncover such deceptions, but unlike the interrogator-suspect context, here it is done to help the person engaging in concealment.

Where does this leave us on lie catching?

Whether we should expect to be misled and feel authorized to catch liars is less certain in other arenas. Should we expect someone bent on seduction to be truthful about how many previous partners they have had, or how much undying love they feel? Will our friends tell us about our unwelcome or unattractive mannerisms? Often it is not clear what to expect and whether lie catching is needed or justifiable. That is the ambiguity we live with about truth and lies.

Visit our Training Tools page to learn more about how you can train yourself to recognize micro and subtle expressions and improve your ability to ‘read’ others.

Darwin’s Claim of Universals in Facial Expression Not Challenged

March 2014
Paul Ekman, Emeritus Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Dacher Keltner, Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s recent contribution (New York Times, February 28, 2014) seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges[ing] the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.” Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press. This is not the first time that Feldman-Barrett publicized her views in the press. We didn’t respond then, but feel compelled to do so now so that the public is not misled, and is apprised of the broader, Darwin-inspired science of emotional expression many scientists are working on today.

First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that all facial expressions are universal, only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly one-hundred years later Silvan Tomkins helped Ekman and Carrol Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list. In the late sixties, Izard and Ekman in separate studies each showed photographs from Tomkins’ own collection, to people in various literate cultures, Western and Non-Western. They found strong cross cultural agreement in the labeling of those expressions. Ekman closed the loophole that observing mass media might account for cross cultural agreement by studying people in a Stone Age culture in New Guinea who had seen few if any outsiders and no media portrayals of emotion. These preliterate people also recognized the same emotions when shown the Darwin-Tomkins set. The capacity for humans in radically different cultures to label facial expressions with terms from a list of emotion terms has replicated nearly 200 hundred times.

Feldman Barrett is right to ask whether individuals in radically different cultures provide similar interpretations of facial expressions if allowed to describe the expressions on their own terms, rather than a list of emotion terms. Haidt and Keltner did such a study comparing the free responses to the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions and some other expressions, with people in rural India and the U.S. Once again the findings of universality were clear cut, and evidence of universality in the expression of embarrassment was also found. The evidence on the judgment of the Darwin-Tomkins facial expressions is robust; so we suppose is Feldman-Barrett’s evidence for the expressions not covered in the Darwin-Tomkins set. She has missed that point, not understanding the difference between unselected and theoretically selected facial expressions.

Feldman-Barrett also ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. Instead what people actually do, spontaneous facial expressions, is measured in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and Friesen published what might be the first such study comparing the spontaneous facial expressions shown by Japanese and American subjects in a private and public setting, finding universal facial expressions – the Darwin-Tomkins set—in private, and different expressions in public. Since then over a hundred studies have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions, enough to justify two volumes reprinting the articles of dozens of scientists by Oxford University Press.

Another large body of research has established different patterns of physiology – in bodily changes generated by Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activity and in brain activity – coinciding with the appearance of the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions. Separate, well-replicated studies, have also shown that voluntarily generating the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions produced distinct changes in ANS and brain activity! Still other studies have related the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions to distinct responses, including cortisol, oxytocin, dopamine, and the cytokine response that is part of the immune system. This work, ignored in Feldman-Barrett’s critiques, suggests that facial expressions not only are informative about individuals’ feelings, but patterns of neurophysiological activation in their bodies. Darwin emphasized the importance of some universal facial expressions in establishing the unity of mankind, challenging the racist assertions of his time that Europeans had descended from a more advanced progenitor that Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.

Are there universal facial expressions?

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