Emotional Intelligence and Faces

braintop Paul Ekman has con­duct­ed exten­sive research on iden­ti­fy­ing emo­tions through facial expres­sions. As part of that research, and as part of the pow­er of dis­ci­pline and train­ing, he learned how to con­scious­ly manip­u­late 42 facial mus­cles, includ­ing many that in most of us are beyond our con­trol, and even awareness.

In the 60s and 70s when Ekman began look­ing into the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of facial expres­sions, all the major con­tem­po­rary social sci­en­tists, like Mar­garet Mead, believed that expres­sions were cul­tur­al­ly learned, not innate. He pro­ceed­ed trav­eled all over the world with pic­tures of peo­ple mak­ing dis­tinct facial expres­sions and found peo­ple in cul­tures every­where, from mod­ern to stone age, agreed on the emo­tion behind the expres­sion. He then turned to study­ing the pro­duc­tion of these expres­sions and the 43 facial mus­cles that can cre­ate 10,000 expres­sions, which form the basis of his training.

He found sev­en uni­ver­sal emo­tions with unique facial expres­sion. The emo­tions are: anger, fear, sad­ness, dis­gust, hap­pi­ness, sur­prise, and con­tempt. At least five of these are shared with non-human pri­mates as well. Inter­est­ing­ly, the smile is the eas­i­est expres­sion to rec­og­nize, and the eas­i­est to iden­ti­fy from afar. These emo­tions have a spe­cif­ic trig­ger, come quick­ly with­out thought, and inter­act with your phys­i­ol­o­gy — mean­ing mere­ly mak­ing the fear expres­sion will cre­ate a fear response in your body as well. With fear, neu­rons will sig­nal your body to pre­pare to flee by send­ing blood to the large vol­un­tary mus­cles in your legs. In anger, on the oth­er hand, your brain sig­nals your body to fight by send­ing blood to your hands. Try prac­tic­ing on your­self: can you feel a change in your emo­tion­al state by mak­ing changes in your facial expression?

Emo­tions have dis­tinct trig­gers and learn­ing those trig­gers is an impor­tant step in under­stand­ing your own emo­tions and why you respond the way you do. To date, the best way to learn to rec­og­nize the the impulse that was trig­gered before the aware­ness of the emo­tion is con­tem­pla­tive prac­tice (med­i­ta­tion). Also, an impor­tant point to clar­i­fy, emo­tions are not moods, which are longer affec­tive expe­ri­ences have an unclear trig­ger (you may not be sure what sparked the mood you’re in) and tend to fil­ter your view of the environment.

Based on pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary research, he found that there are sev­en emo­tions expressed in the face in uni­ver­sal­ly con­sis­tent ways:
— Sadness
— Anger
— Surprise
— Fear
— Enjoyment
— Disgust
— Contempt

Even more inter­est­ing: accord­ing to his research, feel­ings and facial expres­sions influ­ence each oth­er. This is, not only a sad per­son will nat­u­ral­ly look sad, but a per­son who inten­tion­al­ly smiles will feel more con­tent than a per­son who doesn’t.

You can read his advice on how to rec­og­nize feel­ings in order to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter, focused on doc­tor-patient rela­tion­ships but use­ful to every­one (includ­ing patients who may want to make sure to get their point across).

Ques­tion: from left to right, top then down, what uni­ver­sal feel­ing does each face indicate?


  1. Anthony Mersino on November 19, 2007 at 10:24

    Alvaro, thank you for the great post on the work of Paul Ekman. I am a big fan of emo­tion­al intel­li­gence and believe that faces can reveal a lot. Just look at the pok­er play­ers on the world pok­er tour and the lengths they go to in order to hide their eyes and faces!

    Antho­ny Mersino

  2. Alvaro on November 20, 2007 at 9:33

    You’re wel­come. Good example :-)

  3. Lorraine on November 20, 2007 at 7:24

    I once read an arti­cle in a wom­an’s mag­a­zine about ways to decrease wrin­kles. It said that you should try to cut down on facial expressions(which is pret­ty sad notion). The arti­cle said at least try to save your expres­sions for when you are hav­ing a face to face con­ver­sa­tion. One sug­ges­tion was putting a piece of tape on your fore­head when you’re talk­ing on the phone to catch your­self mak­ing a face. Try it, it’s reveal­ing. How­ev­er, in the long run I’d rather have laugh lines than a stone face. :)

  4. David B. Bohl at SlowDownFAST.com on November 21, 2007 at 11:20


    Found your post as a fel­low blog­ger in Liz Fuller’s Car­ni­val of Small Busi­ness Issues.

    Great post. It reminds me to try to act instead of react as best I can.


  5. Alvaro on November 25, 2007 at 2:10

    Hel­lo Lorraine,

    I am not sure about that mag­a­zine’s advice…as you point out there are way more impor­tant things than the amount of wrin­kles we have…

    David: glad you liked it.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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