Facial Expressions of Emotion

Are facial expressions of emotion voluntary?

Dr. Ekman’s controversial claim about the involuntary nature of emotional facial expression

Based on excerpts from this article

Facial Expressions of Emotion

Involuntary facial expressions

I propose that all facial expressions of emotion are involuntary; they are neither voluntarily nor deliberately made. Note, I say all facial expressions of emotion, not all facial movements. Facial expressions of emotion are a subset of facial movements.

When an emotion occurs, impulses are always sent to the facial muscles. There is no choice about that. We can choose to try to interfere with the appearance of that expression, we may be able to interrupt the action of the facial muscles or dampen them so that nothing is visible, but we cannot choose to prevent the impulses from being sent to the facial nerve. We can also choose to make a set of facial movements that resemble a facial expression of emotion, but it will differ detectably from a felt/genuine emotional expression. For an example of the differences between a fabricated vs. a felt emotional facial expression, you can read more about fake and genuine smiles

My claim that all facial expressions of emotion are involuntary is controversial. Many would argue that they are voluntary or that it does not matter if they are voluntary or involuntary, intentionally made to communicate nonverbally or not. Perhaps it is because part of my own research focuses on lies and deception that I find it so important to make this distinction. Sometimes the liar’s emotional expressions betray the lie, despite the liar’s intention to mislead. That is because the expression is involuntary. And lies sometimes succeed because the liar has managed to fabricate something that closely resembles an emotional expression and it is believed. The liar has managed voluntarily to produce something that looks as if it is an involuntary expression.

It is not just when dealing with humans and more specifically with their lies that it is necessary to consider whether expressions are involuntary or not. Essential arguments today about the nature of animal communication often rely upon one’s interpretation of their signaling methods.


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Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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