Profile of a Psychologist: Paul Ekman

ekmanSome of you may have seen the crime-procedural drama “Lie to Me.” It ran on FOX between 2009-2011 until it got cancelled. The show stared  Tim Roth as Cal Lightman, who along with his colleagues of the Lightman Group were consultants for the police and FBI. The Lightman Group specialised in applied psychology, specifically interpreting mirco-expressions and body language. What many people may not know; however, is that the techniques utilised by the Lightman Group in “Lie to Me” are based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman.

Ekman was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1934 but after the outbreak of World War II, moved across the country. At a mere fifteen, Ekman joined the University of Chicago where he became interested in “Freud and psychotherapy.” This inspired him to apply to Adelphi University where he earned his doctorate in clinical psychology. After a stunt working for the US Army, he went on to join the University of San Francisco where he began research into “nonverbal behaviour and facial expressions.” This work lead to further studies on the “concealment of emotions in facial expressions.” Being appointed to professor of psychology at UCSF in 1972, Ekman stayed there until his retirement in 2004.

Emotions play a huge role in emotional disorders and psychotherapy; however, when Ekman began his studies in the 70s, the subfield was practically unexplored. In the early days of psychotherapy emotions were seen as symptoms rather than “something to examined in their own right.” Ekman was one the first psychologists to realise that emotions are as much a vital part in psychotherapy as processes, drives and behaviour. He came to realise the importance of emotions through his work with nonverbal behaviour and facial expressions.

ekman2Before Ekman’s experiments it was believed that physical expression of emotions were learnt according to a set of social conventions, implying that how we express ourselves differes from culture to culture. However, through his travels across the globe, photographing people – ranging from developed countries to untouched tribes in the Amazon – he found that even the tribespeople, untouched by media and the outside world, could interpret emotions through facial expressions as well as people in developed countries. This suggests that physical expression of emotions are universal and a product of evolution not social conventions. A post in the Immersion Blog makes a great point regarding Ekman’s credibility, which has been disputed by critics claiming that facial expressions are for communications purposes only and not subconsciously reflecting our internal life. Robbie Cooper, the blogger, refutes this claim arguing that

                “We only think about expression when we want to use our body for communication on a conscious level. And a lot of the time we aren’t very good at faking internal states. If someone is playing a role in a social situation, it’s often expected of them, but much of the time we aren’t fooled by the performance. Which I think is one of the reasons why great actors are fascinating.” 

Ekman put forth six basic emotions – surprise, anger, happiness, fear, sadness and disgust – and decided because of their ubiquitous nature, these six basic emotions must be quintessential to our psychological make-up. He noted that specific facial expressions relate to each one of these six basic emotions and must in turn be involuntary emotional responses. Furthermore, these responses occur before the mind has time to register the cause and can thus be read to reveal our internal state. Ekman’s research became the basis of his F.A.C.E. training programme aimed to familiarise people, specifically officers of the law and security professionals dealing with deception on a daily basis, with “microexpressions.” Microexpression is term coined by Ekman as the involuntary emotional response, reflected in our facial expression before our brain has time to process the cause.

In Ekman’s 2003 book, Emotions Revealed, he states that emotions can be far more powerful than any of the drives listed by Freud such as sex, hunger and the will for life. These revelations are revolutionary as they completely altered the way in which emotions were seen to play a role in psychological disorders. For example, unhappiness can override the will to live and fear and shame, a biproduct of trauma, can override sexual drive.



Cooper, Robbie. “Ekman Emotion Recognition Test.” Web log post. Immersion Blog. N.p., 29 June 2009. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <;.

Myers, David G. Psychology . 6. Worth Publishers, 2001. Print.Myers, David G. Psychology . 6. Worth Publishers,2001. Print.