Paul Ekman: Biography and contributions of this scientist of emotions

Paul Ekman was a pioneer in the study of human emotions and their relationship to facial expressions, in addition to being known and known as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the century.

During its nearly 40 years of research, Ekman came to discover that in our gestural repertoire, there are about 10,000 facial expressions.But only a third have emotional significance.

Below, we will discover the life of this great scientist, his collaborations with the media and his main studies.

Biography of Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman’s life was spent in different states in the United States and several recognized American universities. His life changed abruptly when he served in the military, completely changing his main interest in 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. Her father was a pediatrician and her mother was a lawyer. Her sister, Joyce Steingart, is a well-known psychoanalyst who worked in New York before retiring.

2. Academic training

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

He would later study for two years at New York University, finishing his 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 for understanding how people could respond to group therapy.

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

After obtaining his doctorate in 1958, Paul Ekman spent 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, that desire changed when he was sent to the military in 1958, after he completed his time at the Institute of Neuropsychiatry. by Langley Porter. He served at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a lieutenant general psychologist.

Here he got the idea that research in psychology could be a powerful tool in changing training routines in the military, making them much more humane. This experience transformed him from wanting to become a psychotherapist to that of a researcher, with the intention that his discoveries serve to help as many people as possible.

4. Professional career

After completing his military service in 1960, Ekman accepted the post of associate researcher, along with Leonard Krasner, at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital. Here he worked with psychiatric patients, studying their verbal behavior.

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

From 1960 to 1963 Ekman was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the NIMH. Thanks to this, he was able to work at San Francisco State College, conducting his first research as a senior researcher at just 29 years old. He would also receive an award from the NIMH again, this time in 1963, for his studies of non-verbal behavior.

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

Motivated by his friend and teacher Silvan S. Tomkins, Ekman stopped focusing on body movements and focused on facial expressions. It is from this change of object of study that he would give as result his more famous book, “Telling Lies”, known in Spanish with “How to detect lies” in 1985.

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 continued to work at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, albeit on a limited basis and as an advisor on various clinical cases. After his retirement, Ekman founded the “Paul Ekman Group” and the “Paul Ekman International”.

Influence and collaboration with the media

In 2001, Paul Ekman collaborated with the BBC’s John Cleese on the documentary “The Human Face”.. From his leap to the small screen as an expert voice in the expression of human emotions, Ekman would be constantly referenced in another television series, “Lie to Me”, the protagonist, Dr. Lightman takes inspiration from Ekman. In fact, Ekman himself served as a science advisor for the series, even giving the actors instructions on how to mimic facial expressions.

Although already retired, Ekman didn’t miss the opportunity to collaborate on the Pixar film “Inside Out”, also known in the Hispanic world as “Reverse” from 2015. In fact, Ekman even wrote a guide for the movie to act as a guide for parents when talking about emotions with their kids.

What must be clear about Ekman’s figure is that, either for his research, for the 15 books he wrote or for having collaborated on the projects that we have just observed, this psychologist is considered a great referent. In fact, he appeared among the 100 Most Influential People in the May issue of Time magazine in 2009. He also ranks 50th on the list of the most influential psychologists of the 21st century, according to the Archives of Scientific Psychology in 2014. .


Among the main investigations in which Paul Ekman was involved or was the main researcher, we can highlight the following:

1. Non-verbal communication and its empirical measurement

Interest in non-verbal communication was what led Paul Ekman to present his first publication in 1957. In this research, he highlighted the difficulty of developing tools to empirically measure non-verbal communication.

It was then that Ekman focused on developing techniques to objectively and accurately measure non-verbal communication. Based on these studies, Ekman observed that facial muscle movements create facial expressions that can be identified through empirical research. In fact, he saw that humans are able to perform around 10,000 facial expressions, but only a third of them are relevant in expressing and interpreting emotions.

2. Universal emotions

The idea that emotions are evolutionary traits that occur universally in all human beings is not something new. Already Charles Darwin himself, in his 1872 book “The expression of emotions in man and animals” raised this idea.

However, in the 1950s there was a more or less opposite view, especially among anthropologists. The belief was that facial expressions and their assigned meanings were determined by behavioral learning. One of the most important figures of this belief was anthropologist Margaret Mead, who had traveled to different countries and observed how different non-verbal communication was from culture to culture.

Through various studies, Paul Ekman observed that there were emotions that could be considered universal, observing both Western and Eastern literate cultures. Among the emotions he observed manifesting in all cultures were: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. Another emotion, that of contempt, was not as clear as it was. universal, although later studies seemed to indicate this.

Working with Wallace V. Friesen was able to show that these discoveries were also attributable to the pre-literary tribes of Papua New Guinea, cultures which had not been able to learn the expressions through modern media, since they did not have them. . What Friesen and Ekman observed based on these studies was that there were certain emotions that manifested themselves in a very specific way, heavily influenced by cultural norms. These specific rules would explain the existence of differences in the expression of universal emotions between cultures.

During the 1990s, Ekman came up with an expanded list of basic emotions, both positive and negative, and not all of which are encoded by facial movements. These “new” emotions were: relief, suffocation, contentment, guilt, fun, contempt, enthusiasm, happiness, anger, fear, sadness, pride, sensory pleasure , disgust, satisfaction, surprise and shame.

Bibliographical references:

  • Ekman, P. (2009). Telling Lies: Clues to Deceive the Market, Politics, and Marriage (How to Spot Lies)
  • Ekman, P. (2008). Emotional awareness: overcoming obstacles to psychological balance and compassion
  • Ekman, P .; Cohen, L .; Moos, R .; Raine, W .; Schlesinger, M .; Stone, G. (1963). Divergent reactions to the threat of war. Science. 139 (3550): 88-94.
  • Ekman, P. (1957). “A methodological discussion of non-verbal behavior”. Journal of Psychology. 43: 141–49.

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