Paul Ekman and the study of microexpressions

Paul Ekman Not only is he one of the most publicized psychologists (he was involved in the development of the Lie to Me series and the movie Inside Out), he is also one of the pioneers in one of the most interesting fields. behavioral science: the study of non-verbal language and, more specifically, of micro-expressions.

Knowing more about them could be very helpful in improving our understanding of communication and the nature of fundamental and universal emotions, if they really exist.

What are microexpressions?

fundamentally 1 microexpression is a facial expression performed involuntarily and automatically and that, although lasting less than a second, it could theoretically be used to find out the emotional state of the person performing it.

According to the ideas of Ekman and other researchers, microexpressions are universalAs they are the result of the expression of certain genes which cause the simultaneous contraction of certain muscle groups of the face following a pattern whenever a basic emotional state appears. From this derive two other ideas: that microexpressions 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 facial gestures. .

Through the study of micro-expressions, Paul Ekman attempted to see basic psychological and physiological mechanisms which are theoretically expressed in the same way in all human societies and which therefore have a high degree of genetic heritability.

Basic emotions

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

This way, situations of danger or those in which the importance of an element of the environment causes individuals to become emotionally highly activatedOthers will be able to instantly know that something is going on and will look for clues to find out in more detail what is going on. This idea is not new; Charles Darwin he has already advanced it in his writings on emotions in humans and animals. However, more recent researchers have specialized in this area of ​​study, devoting much of their time and effort to analyzing this small patch of psychology and physiology.

The role of education

Needless to say, it is not yet clear whether there are universal facial microexpressions. For this, the typical behavior of members of all existing cultures must be known and deepened, and this is not the case. In addition, in a laboratory environment, it is difficult to get people to feel the emotions that researchers want, not others.

This is why, however Paul Ekman has made efforts to study the extent to which there are universal basic emotions. and the facial gestures associated with them, it is always possible that there is an exception in a remote corner of the planet and that the theory of universality collapses.

However, it has been shown that, for at least a few thousandths of a second, members of many cultures have their say through the same expressions.

For example, in a study published in Psychological Science conducted from the analysis of images in which we saw how athletes who played a medal at the Olympics, it was found that they all showed the same type of microexpressions immediately after learning they had won or lost, Although later each person modulated these gestures according to the culture to which he belonged. This is exactly the essence of the microexpressions Paul Ekman theorized about: first there is an automatic and stereotypical reaction to emotional stimuli, and then everyone takes control of their actions.

Gestures that bring us

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

In other words, if a person is sufficiently trained to detect microexpressions, will come to have some knowledge of the other person’s emotional state even if the other person tries to avoid (Unless your face is covered, of course).

However, in practice, recognizing these microexpressions is not that simple, because in everyday situations there is a lot of “noise” in the form of information that obscures the way you can see how small muscles are moving. Someone’s facials. In addition, specialized equipment is often required to capture a clear image of these brief moments.

detect microexpressions

If the microexpressions are generated according to stereotypical patterns, it makes sense to think that you can develop a method to consistently identify each of them. This is why, in the 1970s, Paul Ekman and his colleague Wallace V. Fiesen developed a system to label each type of facial movement related 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 (FACS).

However, by far that doesn’t mean that lies can be detected just by identifying microexpressions, and we’re not talking about something like mind reading anymore. The fact that these gestures are automatic due to the expression of genes makes, at the same time, the information that microexpressions provide us with extremely ambiguous, because the details of the context are not “translated” by the muscular movements of the face.

A microexpression can indicate whether or not a person is sad at a particular time, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what is causing that feeling. The same goes for microexpressions related to fear. They can be an indicator that fears that lies have been revealed are uncovered, or they can also express fear that we believe what has been said to be lies.

As always, the study of human behavior rarely progresses by leaps and bounds, and Paul Ekman’s work on microexpressions has nothing to do with 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 can also be studied to learn models of empathy and better communication. However, since microexpressions are by definition automatic and unconscious, it would be impossible to influence them directly.

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