Category Archives: “Psychology”

Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues

John Pearse Website
John Pearse, Ph.D
Vice President of Paul Ekman Group

Unfortunately terrorism is all around us as recent global events continue to demonstrate.  Across America, throughout Europe and around the world people took to the streets to peacefully protest against the terrorist atrocities that had left 17 dead in Paris, France last week. The themes emerging from this massive world-wide show of public support for the freedom of expression and in the wider sense liberty itself are two-fold: it is about terrorism, organised terrorism and not religion and secondly that if we are to defeat it then we must do so together. In my new book – Investigating Terrorism – I also reinforce these themes by bringing together an array of multi-disciplinary experts and seek to dispel a number of the many myths that exist especially in relation to suicide attacks.

I have assembled leading counter terrorism experts from the world of politics – who are responsible for drafting new terrorist legislation; law enforcement officers who are tasked with exercising such powers; lawyers, both defence and prosecution who are charged with examining and contesting the facts of each case and psychologist who help us to understand the thought processes and personality characteristics behind such terrorist behaviour. One of the most common myths about suicide attacks is that it is an Islamic phenomenon but any historian will tell you that this simply is not the case. Indeed, there is a very strong argument to suggest that the story of Samson, in the Old Testament of the Bible, may well be the first recorded account of such an act.

You will remember that Samson had been captured by the Philistines and he asked the young lad that was leading him to position him between the pillars that supported the main hall where everybody was congregated and the Bible records that he said “Let me die with the Philistines.” And using all his strength he quite literally brought the house down and killed all the men, women and children present – about three thousand (see Judges 16: 26-30 and Chapter 9 of my book). In terms of the fatalities – how does this compare with the 9/11 atrocities? Interestingly, the Bible does not condemn this action rather it portrays it as an act of redemption and vengeance. More recently, in World War II readers may be familiar with actions of the Japanese pilots who undertook ‘Kamikaze’ (suicide) missions against the American fleet in the Pacific.  What is perhaps less well known is that the very first ‘Kamikaze’ act was undertaken by an American pilot – Captain Richard Fleming at the Battle of Midway in 1942 whose actions greatly impressed the Japanese senior command.

So it is very important to remain detached and to stay well informed when discussing suicide acts and the many myths that pervade this subject – it is not a question of religion – it is most definitely a very effective and successful tactic undertaken by organisations – terrorist organisations. In my book I dedicate a chapter to analysing the first and to date, the only ‘ticking bomb’ interview undertaken with a failed suicide bomber in Western Europe. After four bombs had been placed around London the bombers made their escape but the first one captured knew where the bomb making material was to be found and the location of the other bombers – would he reveal these details? In this unique environment normal interviewing practices can be suspended on the grounds of public safety – the resultant exchange between the British detectives and the Somali born detainee was to become the subject of many legal arguments – exhausting the entire appeal process in the UK and reaching the highest court in Europe – a very different process from the American experience (see chapters 1-5 in my book).

Some time ago I was very fortunate that as a psychologist and senior detective in the Counter Terrorism Command at New Scotland Yard I was invited to research and interview failed suicide bombers in the Middle East. One striking fact that I immediately recognised was to learn that a crucial factor in the success of any suicide attack was the role of the young boy or girl whose task was to lead the bomber to the desired location – I immediately thought of Samson and how so little had changed in that part of the world from Biblical times!

Another important element in preventing suicide attacks was the need to employ alert and watchful private security guards at busy public locations as they had met with considerable success in preventing attacks and raising the alarm. According to the guards themselves they only had to look at the faces of people to know when something was wrong. Whilst many of the guards were unable to accurately identify or articulate the actual emotion displayed the Paul Ekman Group has developed a world renowned suite of on-line tools that will greatly improve your ability to recognise and discern even the most fleeting of emotional expressions click here.

-John Pearse

Investigating Terrorism: Current Political, Legal and Psychological Issues – published by Wiley Blackwell is available at

‘How can we be more effective in bringing terrorists to justice in ways that uphold our legal traditions? This book provides crucial clues drawn from highly experienced prosecution and defence lawyers, detectives, security experts and forensic psychologists. I highly recommend it for all who want to understand and respond to the serious threat from jihadist terrorism over the years to come.’
-Professor Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and Director GCHQ

‘Edited and written by experts in their fields and with a plethora of experience, the authors know what they are talking about. This book is a must for those who need to know, those who are interested to know, and those who think they know it all already.’
-Susan Young, Professor of Forensic Clinical Psychology, Broadmoor Hospital, West London Mental Health Trust

#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.











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.

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?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.40.08 PMTake our simple test to learn more about facial expressions of emotion.