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Paul Ekman universal emotions/Biography/Research

Paul Ekman has been a pioneer in the study of human emotions and their relationship to facial expressions, as well as being known and noted for being among the 100 most influential psychologists of the century. Paul Ekman universal emotions

During his almost 40 years of researchEkman came to discover that in our gestural repertoire there are about 10,000 facial expressions , but only a third have emotional meaning.

Next we will learn about the life of this great scientist, his collaborations with the media and his main studies.

Biography of Paul Ekman

The life of Paul Ekman has passed in different states of the United States and several recognized North American universities. His life took an abrupt change when he served in the army, completely changing his main interest within behavioral science.

1. Early years

Paul Ekman was born on February 15, 1934 in Washington DC, United States, spending his childhood in different American states: New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and California. His father was a pediatrician and his mother was a lawyer. His sister, Joyce Steingart, is a well-known psychoanalyst psychologist who worked in New York City before retiring.

2. Academic training

Even without even having graduated from high school, at just 15 years old Paul Ekman enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he would complete three years of training. It would be during his stay in that city where he would be fascinated by group therapy and group dynamics.

Later, he would study two years at New York University, finishing studies in 1954. The subject of his first research, under the direction of his university professor, Margaret Tresselt, was an attempt to develop a test to understand how people could respond to group therapy. Paul Ekman universal emotions

After this, Ekman would return to step on a new university, in this case that of Adelphi, in Garden City, New York, where he would study clinical psychology. While working on his master’s degree, Ekman was awarded a college scholarship from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1955. His master’s thesis focused on facial expression and body movement.

After obtaining his doctorate, in 1958, Paul Ekman would do a year as an intern at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute.

3. Military service

Although Ekman originally wanted to work in the field of psychotherapy, this desire changed when he was sent to the army in 1958, after his stay at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute was over. He served at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a Lieutenant General Psychologist.

That’s when the idea came to him that research in psychology could be a powerful tool to change training routines in the military, making them much more humane. This experience made him go from wanting to be a psychotherapist to wanting to be a researcher, with the intention that his findings would serve to help as many people as possible.

4. Professional career

After completing his military service in 1960, Ekman accepted the position of Research Associate, along with Leonard Krasner, at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. There he worked with psychiatric patients, studying their verbal behavior. Paul Ekman universal emotions

It was at this time that he had the opportunity to meet the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was part of the staff of that same hospital. That contact would serve Ekman so that, five years later, Bateson would give him films taken in Bali in the 1930s of his intercultural studies on expressions and gestures.

From 1960 to 1963, Ekman held a postdoctoral fellowship from the NIMH . Thanks to this, he could work at San Francisco State College, conducting his first research as a principal investigator at just 29 years old. The NIMH would also receive an award again, this time in 1963, for his studies on non-verbal behavior.

The money offered by the NIMH would be renewed continuously for the next 40 years, and would be what would pay his salary until in 1972 he could be accepted as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Motivated by his friend and professor Silvan S. Tomkins, Ekman shifted his focus from body movement to facial expressions. It was from this change of object of study that his most famous book, “Telling Lies”, known in Spanish with “How to detect lies” in 1985, would result.

Paul Ekman would retire in 2004 as a professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at the University of California. From 1960 to 2004 he has continued to work at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, albeit on a limited basis and as a counselor on various clinical cases. After his retirement, Ekman founded the “Paul Ekman Group” and the “Paul Ekman International”.

What are the 6 basic emotions?

As we mentioned before, there are 6 basic emotions (also known by the name of primary emotions) detected by Paul Ekman at a cross-cultural level. In some studies the emotion of contempt is included in the previous list. Paul Ekman universal emotions


Anger is the feeling that emerges when the person is subjected to situations that cause frustration or that are aversive.

In a generic way, it is considered as an invigorating process that urges action, interrupting the cognitive processes that are in progress, focusing attention and the expression of negative affects on the agent that instigates it, and acting as a defense in situations that compromise the physical integrity or self-image and self-esteem.

The anger or excessive anger are closely related to hypertension, angina pectoris, myocardial infarction and gastrointestinal disorders.


Disgust is a sensation that refers firstly to something that is repugnant to the sense of taste, something perceived at that moment or vividly imagined, and secondly to something that produces a similar sensation in the sense of smell, of touch, or even sight.

In the most general sense the term disgust defines a marked aversion produced by something strongly unpleasant or disgusting. It is a complex emotion, which implies a rejection response.


It is the most studied emotion in animals and man. Fear is a vital evolutionary legacy that has obvious survival valueFear evolved to produce adaptive responses, behavioral solutions to the problem of survival, how to detect the problem and how to respond to it. Paul Ekman universal emotions

Fear is a negative or aversive emotional state with a very high activation that encourages avoidance and escape from situations that threaten the survival or well-being of the organism.

Excessive fear can cause panic attacks and even specific illnesses.


The emotion of joy arises when the person evaluates the object or event as favorable to the achievement of their particular goals. It also appears when the person experiences an attenuation in their state of discomfort, achieves some desired goal or objective, or when we have an aesthetic experience.


Negative feeling characterized by a decline in the person’s usual mood, which is accompanied by a significant reduction in their level of cognitive and behavioral activity, and whose subjective experience ranges from mild grief to intense grief. Paul Ekman universal emotions

Some studies argue that sadness doubles the chances of having a heart attack.


The surprise is caused by the unexpected or unknown. It can be defined as: A reaction caused by something unforeseen, novel or strange, also defined as a reaction to an event or event inconsistent with the subject‘s plan or scheme.

Micro facial expressions and basic emotions

Did you know that 70% of what we communicate daily corresponds to non-verbal communication? When we speak of non-verbal communication, we refer to everything that we transmit without saying a single word. It is about gestures, body postures, facial expressions and looks through which we can express our emotions and moods.

Paul Ekman expanded his study of basic emotions and did a lot of work analyzing facial “micro-expressions” to show that they could be used to detect lies. 

In 2009, the television series  Lie to Me” inspired by the work of Dr. Paul Ekman was broadcast for the first time . This series consists of different investigations of a team formed by the famous Dr. Lightman who has the help of a psychologist among other characters.

These specialists are able to detect lies and analyze people’s behavior by interpreting facial micro-expressions. Paul Ekman universal emotions

Although these little “telltale” gestures last less than a second, they can be used to find out the true emotional state of a person. These micro-expressions, being automatic, cannot be concealed or hidden no matter how hard they try. 

As with his work with basic emotions, facial micro-expressions do not change across the cultures that Paul Ekman analyzed.

In the 2000s, Ekman’s findings on facial expressions and lying were incorporated into public transportation security protocols and have been useful in designing security measures against terrorism.

On the other hand, in 2015, the film “Del Revés” (Inside Out) was released where we can observe what happens in the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley whose behavior is guided every day of her life by five of the basic emotionsjoy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear.

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