He was ranked 59th out of the 100 most cited psychologists of the twentieth century. Ekman conducted seminal research on the specific biological correlations of specific emotions, demonstrating the universality and discreteness of emotions in a Darwinian approach.
Paul Ekman was born to Jewish parents in 1934 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and California. His father was a pediatrician and his mother was an attorney. His sister, Joyce Steingart, is a psychoanalytic psychologist who before her retirement practiced in New York City.
Ekman originally wanted to be a psychotherapist, but when he was drafted into the army in 1958 he found that research could change army routines, making them more humane. This experience converted him from wanting to be a psychotherapist to wanting to be a researcher, in order to help as many people as possible.
At the age of 15, without graduating from high school, Paul Ekman enrolled at the University of Chicago where he completed three years of undergraduate study. During his time in Chicago he was fascinated by group therapy sessions and understanding group dynamics. Notably, his classmates at Chicago included writer Susan Sontag, film director Mike Nichols, and actress Elaine May.
He then studied two years at New York University (NYU), earning his BA in 1954. The subject of his first research project, under the direction of his NYU professor, Margaret Tresselt, was an attempt to develop a test of how people would respond to group therapy.
Next, Ekman was accepted into the Adelphi University graduate program for clinical psychology. While working for his master's degree, Ekman was awarded a predoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1955. His Master's thesis was focused on facial expression and body movement he had begun to study in 1954. Ekman eventually went on to receive his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University in 1958, after a one-year internship at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Ekman was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 to serve 2 years as soon as his internship at Langley Porter was finished. He served as first lieutenant-chief psychologist, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he did research on army stockades and psychological changes during infantry basic training.
Upon completion of military service in 1960, he accepted a position as a research associate with Leonard Krasner at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital, working on a grant focused on the operant conditioning of verbal behavior in psychiatric patients. Ekman also met anthropologist Gregory Bateson in 1960 who was on the staff of the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. Five years later, Gregory Bateson gave Paul Ekman motion picture films taken in Bali in the mid-1930s to help Ekman with cross-cultural studies of expression and gesture.
From 1960 to 1963, Ekman was supported by a post doctoral fellowship from NIMH. He submitted his first research grant through San Francisco State College with himself as the principal investigator (PI) at the young age of 29. He received this grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1963 to study nonverbal behaviour. This award would be continuously renewed for the next 40 years and would pay his salary until he was offered a professorship at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 1972.
Encouraged by his college friend and teacher Silvan S. Tomkins, Ekman shifted his focus from body movement to facial expressions. He wrote his most famous book, Telling Lies, and published it in 1985. The 4th edition is still in print. He retired in 2004 as professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). From 1960 to 2004 he also worked at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute on a limited basis consulting on various clinical cases.
After retiring from the University of California, San Francisco, Paul Ekman founded the Paul Ekman Group (PEG) and Paul Ekman International. The Paul Ekman Group, "develops and offers online emotional skills-building programs such as the Micro Expression Training Tool, offers workshops, supports researchers in our field, and builds online community around these topics." They do not take individual cases. Also, PEG offers a micro expression and subtle expression training tool for sale on their website.
In 2001, Ekman collaborated with John Cleese for the BBC documentary series The Human Face.
His work is frequently referred to in the TV series Lie to Me. Dr. Lightman is based on Paul Ekman, and Ekman served as a scientific adviser for the series; he read and edited the scripts and sent video clip-notes of facial expressions for the actors to imitate. While Ekman has written 15 books, the series Lie to Me has more effectively brought Ekman's research into people's homes. Lie to Me has aired in more than 60 countries.
He has also collaborated with Pixar's film director and animator Pete Docter in preparation of his 2015 film Inside Out. Ekman also wrote a parent’s guide to using Inside Out to help parents talk with their children about emotion, which can be found on his personal website www.paulekman.com.
He was named one of the top Time 100 most influential people in the May 11, 2009 edition of Time magazine. He was also ranked fifteenth among the most influential psychologists of the 21st century in 2014 by the journal Archives of Scientific Psychology. He is currently on the Editorial Board of Greater Good magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California, Berkeley. His contributions include the interpretation of scientific research into the roots of compassion, altruism, and peaceful human relationships.
Ekman's interest in nonverbal communication led to his first publication in 1957, describing how difficult it was to develop ways of empirically measuring nonverbal behaviour. He chose the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, the psychiatry department of the University of California Medical School, for his clinical internship partly because Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees had recently published a book called Nonverbal Communication (1956).
Ekman then focused on developing techniques for measuring nonverbal communication. He found that facial muscular movements that created facial expressions could be reliably identified through empirical research. He also found that human beings are capable of making over 10,000 facial expressions; only 3,000 relevant to emotion. Psychologist Silvan Tomkins convinced Ekman to extend his studies of nonverbal communication from body movement to the face, helping him design his classic cross-cultural emotion recognition studies. Interestingly enough, Tomkins also supervised Carroll Izard at the same time, fostering a similar interest in emotion through cross-cultural research.
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872, Charles Darwin theorized that emotions were evolved traits universal to the human species. However, the prevalent belief during the 1950s, particularly among anthropologists, was that facial expressions and their meanings were determined through behavioural learning processes. A prominent advocate of the latter perspective was the anthropologist Margaret Mead who had travelled to different countries examining how cultures communicated using nonverbal behaviour.
Through a series of studies, Ekman found a high agreement across members of diverse Western and Eastern literate cultures on selecting emotional labels that fit facial expressions. Expressions he found to be universal included those indicating wrath, grossness, scaredness, joy, loneliness, and shock. Findings on contempt were less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence that this emotion and its expression are universally recognized. Working with his long-time friend Wallace V. Friesen, Ekman demonstrated that the findings extended to preliterate Fore tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, whose members could not have learned the meaning of expressions from exposure to media depictions of emotion. Ekman and Friesen then demonstrated that certain emotions were exhibited with very specific display rules, culture-specific prescriptions about who can show which emotions to whom and when. These display rules could explain how cultural differences may conceal the universal effect of expression.
In the 1990s, Ekman proposed an expanded list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions that are not all encoded in facial muscles. The newly included emotions are: Amusement, Contempt, Contentment, Embarrassment, Excitement, Guilt, Pride in achievement, Relief, Satisfaction, Sensory pleasure, and Shame.
Ekman's famous test of emotion recognition was the Pictures of Facial Affect (POFA) stimulus set published in 1976. Consisting of 110 black and white images of Caucasian actors portraying the six universal emotions plus neutral expressions, the POFA has been used to study emotion recognition rates in normal and psychiatric populations around the world. Ekman used these stimuli in his original cross-cultural research. Many researchers favor the POFA because these photographs have been rated by large normative groups in different cultures. In response to critics, however, Ekman eventually released a more culturally diverse set of stimuli called the Japanese and Caucasian Facial Expressions of Emotion (JACFEE).
By 1978, Ekman and Friesen had finalized and developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to taxonomize every human facial expression. FACS is an anatomically based system for describing all observable facial movement for every emotion. Each observable component of facial movement is called an action unit or AU and all facial expressions can be decomposed into their constituent core AUs. An update of this tool came in the early 2000s.
Other tools have been developed, including the MicroExpressions Training Tool (METT), which can help individuals identify more subtle emotional expressions that occur when people try to suppress their emotions. Application of this tool includes helping people with Asperger's or autism to recognize emotional expressions in their everyday interactions. The Subtle Expression Training Tool (SETT) teaches recognition of very small, micro signs of emotion. These are very tiny expressions, sometimes registering in only part of the face, or when the expression is shown across the entire face, but is very small. Subtle expressions occur for many reasons, for example, the emotion experienced may be very slight or the emotion may be just beginning. METT and SETT have been shown to increase accuracy in evaluating truthfulness.
Ekman has contributed to the study of social aspects of lying, why we lie, and why we are often unconcerned with detecting lies. He first became interested in detecting lies while completing his clinical work. As detailed in Ekman's "Telling Lies", a patient he was involved in treating denied that she was suicidal in order to leave the hospital. Ekman began to review videotaped interviews to study people's facial expressions while lying. In a research project along with Maureen O'Sullivan, called the Wizards Project (previously named the Diogenes Project), Ekman reported on facial "microexpressions" which could be used to assist in lie detection. After testing a total of 20,000 people from all walks of life, he found only 50 people who had the ability to spot deception without any formal training. These naturals are also known as "Truth Wizards", or wizards of deception detection from demeanor.
In his profession, he also uses oral signs of lying. When interviewed about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he mentioned that he could detect that former President Bill Clinton was lying because he used distancing language.
In his 1993 seminal paper in the psychology journal American Psychologist, Ekman describes nine direct contributions that his research on facial expression has made to our understanding of emotion. Highlights include:Consideration of both nature and nurture: Emotion is now viewed as a physiological phenomenon influenced by our cultural and learning experiences.
Emotion-specific physiology: Ekman led the way by trying to find discrete psychophysiological differences across emotions. A number of researchers continue to search for emotion-specific autonomic and central nervous system activations. With the advent of neuroimaging techniques, a topic of intense interest revolves around how specific emotions relate to physiological activations in certain brain areas. Ekman laid the groundwork for the future field of affective neuroscience.
An examination of events that precede emotions: Ekman's finding that voluntarily making one of the universal facial expressions can generate the physiology and some of the subjective experience of emotion provided some difficulty for some of the earlier theoretical conceptualizations of experiencing emotions.
Considering emotions as families: Ekman & Friesen (1978) found not one expression for each emotion, but a variety of related but visually different expressions. For example, the authors reported 60 variations of the anger expression which share core configurational properties and distinguish themselves clearly from the families of fearful expressions, disgust expressions, and so on. Variations within a family likely reflect the intensity of the emotion, how the emotion is controlled, whether it is simulated or spontaneous, and the specifics of the event that provoked the emotion.
Most credibility-assessment researchers agree that people are unable to visually detect lies. The application of part of Ekman's work to airport security via the Transportation Security Administration's "Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques" (SPOT) program has been criticized for not having been put through controlled scientific tests. A 2007 report on SPOT stated that "simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin". Since controlled scientific tests typically involve people playing the part of terrorists, Ekman says those people are unlikely to have the same emotions as actual terrorists. The methodology used by Ekman and O'Sullivan in their recent work on Truth wizards has also received criticism on the basis of validation.
Other criticisms of Ekman's work are based on experimental and naturalistic studies by several other emotion psychologists that did not find evidence in support of Ekman's proposed taxonomy of discrete emotions and discrete facial expression.
Ekman received hostility from some anthropologists at meetings of the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association from 1967 to 1969. He recounted that, as he was reporting his findings on universality of expression, one anthropologist tried to stop him from finishing by shouting that his ideas were fascist. He compares this to another incident when he was accused of being racist by an activist for claiming that Black expressions are not different from White expressions. In 1975, Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, wrote against Ekman for doing "improper anthropology", and for disagreeing with Ray Birdwhistell's claim opposing universality. Ekman wrote that, while many people agreed with Birdwhistell then, most came to accept his own findings over the next decade. However, some anthropologists continued to suggest that emotions are not universal. Ekman argued that there has been no quantitative data to support the claim that emotions are culture specific. In his 1993 discussion of the topic, Ekman states that there is no instance in which 70% or more of one cultural group select one of the six universal emotions while another culture group labels the same expression as another universal emotion.
Ekman criticized the tendency of psychologists to base their conclusions on surveys of college students. Hank Campbell quotes Ekman saying at the Being Human conference, "We basically have a science of undergraduates."
The pioneer F-M Facial Action Coding System 2.0 (F-M FACS 2.0) was created in 2017 by Dr. Freitas-Magalhães, and presents 2,000 segments in 4K, using 3D technology and automatic and real-time recognition.Nonverbal messages: Cracking the Code ISBN 978-0-9915636-3-0
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (Times Books, 2008) ISBN 0-8050-8712-5
Unmasking the Face ISBN 1-883536-36-7
Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (Times Books, 2003) ISBN 0-8050-7516-X
Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (W. W. Norton & Company, 1985) ISBN 0-393-32188-6
What the Face Reveals (with Rosenberg, E. L., Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-510446-3
The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions (with R. Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-19-508944-8
Darwin and Facial Expression: A Century of Research in Review ISBN 0-12-236750-2
Facial Action Coding System/Investigator's ISBN 99936-26-61-9
Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness (Penguin, 1991) ISBN 0-14-014322-X
Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research ISBN 0-521-28072-9
Face of Man ISBN 0-8240-7130-1
Emotion in the Human Face ISBN 0-08-016643-1
Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (Sussex, UK John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1999)