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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?

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11 Responses

  1. 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 says:

    You’re welcome. Good example 🙂

  3. Lorraine says:

    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. Alvaro,

    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 says:

    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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