Paul Ekman And The Study Of Microexpressions

Gestures, expressions, emotions and micro-expressions supported Paul Ekman’s theory.

Paul Ekman is not only one of the most mediatic psychologists (he has participated in the development of the series  Míénteme and the film  Inside Out ), he is also one of the pioneers in one of the most interesting areas of behavioral science: the study of non-verbal language and, more specifically, of micro-expressions .

Knowing more about them could go a long way in improving our understanding of communication and the nature of  basic and universal emotions , if they really exist.

What are micro expressions?

Basically, a microexpression is an involuntary and automatic facial expression that, despite lasting less than a second, could theoretically be used to know the emotional state of the person who performs it.

According to the ideas of Ekman and other researchers, micro- expressions are universal, since they are the result of the expression of certain genes that cause certain muscle groups of the face to contract at the same time, following a pattern each time a basic emotional state appears. . Two other ideas are derived from this: that micro-expressions always appear in the same way in all people of the human species regardless of their culture, and that there is also a group of universal emotions linked to these brief gestures of the face.

Through the study of microexpressions, Paul Ekman has tried to see basic psychological and physiological mechanisms that theoretically are expressed in the same way in all human societies and that, consequently, would have a high degree of genetic heritability.

Basic emotions

The link between facial micro-expressions and the 5 basic emotions proposed by Paul Ekman is based on the idea of ​​adaptive potential: if there are a well-defined series of emotions and a predefined way of expressing them, this means that other members of the species can recognize them and use this information for the good of your community.

In this way, dangerous situations or those in which the importance of an element of the environment causes individuals to become emotionally highly activated, others will be able to know instantly that something is happening, and they will start looking for clues to know with more detail what happens. This idea is not new; Charles Darwin already advanced it in his writings on emotions in humans and animals. However, more recent researchers have specialized in this field of study, dedicating much of their time and effort to analyze this small patch of psychology and physiology.

The role of education

It should be said that it is not yet known for sure whether there are universal facial microexpressions. For this, the typical behavior of the members of all the cultures that exist would have to be known in depth, and this is not the case. Furthermore, in a laboratory setting it is difficult to get people to experience the emotions that researchers want, and not others.

That is why, although Paul Ekman has made efforts to investigate to what extent there are universal basic emotions and facial gestures associated with them, it is always possible that there is an exception in some remote corner of the planet and the universality theory is crumble.

However, evidence has been found that, for at least a few thousandths of a second, members of many cultures express their feelings through the same expressions.

For example, in a study published in Psychological Science carried out from the analysis of films in which athletes who played a medal in the Olympic games behaved, it was found that they all showed the same type of microexpressions immediately after knowing that they had won or lost, although later each one modulated these gestures depending on the culture to which they belonged. This is exactly the essence of the micro-expressions on which Paul Ekman has theorized: first an automatic and stereotyped reaction to emotional stimuli appears, and right afterwards each one takes control over their gestures.

Gestures that betray us

Another of the most interesting ideas about microexpressions is that, being automatic, they cannot be “hidden” or disguised with absolute success. 

That is, if a person is sufficiently trained to detect micro-expressions, they will come to have a certain knowledge about the emotional state of the other person even if they try to avoid it (unless they cover their face, of course).

However, in practice, recognizing these microexpressions is not so easy, since in everyday situations there is a lot of “noise” in the form of information that masks the way in which you can see how the small facial muscles of someone. In addition, specialized equipment is often required to capture a clear picture of these brief moments.

Detect microexpressions

If the micro-expressions are generated following stereotypical patterns, it is logical to think that a method can be developed to systematically identify each one of them. For this reason, in the 1970s Paul Ekman and his colleague Wallace V. Fiesen developed a system to label each type of facial movement linked to an emotional state based on the work of a Swedish anatomist named Carl-Herman Hjortsjö. This tool was called the Facial Action Coding System (English, FACS, Facial Action Coding System).

However, this does not mean, by far, that you can  detect lies just by identifying micro-expressions, and let’s not talk about something similar to reading thoughts. The fact that these gestures are automatic due to gene expression means that, at the same time, the information provided by the micro-expressions is tremendously ambiguous, since the details of the context are not “translated” through the movements. muscles in the face.

A microexpression can be an indication to know if someone is sad or not at a certain moment, but it does not tell us anything about what causes that feeling. The same occurs with micro-expressions linked to  fear. They can be an indicator that it is feared that the lies that have been told will be exposed, or they can also express the fear that we believe that what has been told are lies.

As always, the study of human behavior seldom progresses in great strides, and Paul Ekman’s work on micro-expressions is nothing like a Rosetta stone of mental states. It can be used, of course, to learn more about our genetic predispositions when it comes to expressing emotions, and it can also be studied to learn patterns of  empathy and improved communication. However, as by definition micro expressions are automatic and unconscious, it would be impossible to directly influence them.

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