Ekman’s universal emotions - Decision Making & Emotions

30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011

Ekman’s universal emotions
Decision Making & Emotions

The idea that human expressions are universal dates back to Darwin and was popularized by Paul Ekman in the 1970s. Ekman argues that muscle movements in the face are the building blocks of facial expressions, and that the relationship between these movements and emotions is universal. He showed photos of faces expressing various emotions to people from different parts of the world, including North and South America, Japan, and the Fore peoples of the Papua New Guinea highlands, and found that they all identified the same faces with the same emotional words. He also filmed the facial expressions of US and Japanese students as they watched movies, and observed the same expressions in both. He took these results as evidence that the expression of emotions is constant across cultures, and suggested that this apparent universality is due to evolution, innate brain mechanisms or common developmental processes. Ekman used his findings to devise the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a comprehensive index of facial expressions. He applied the FACS to the study of how expressions change in people with psychiatric disorders, and argued that people with depression and schizophrenia cannot recognize specific emotions. Today, the FACS is still the most commonly used method for categorizing facial expressions.


People from different cultures use the same facial expressions to convey emotions, such as anger, fear, disgust, sadness and surprise.


Since Ekman’s work, it has generally been accepted that facial expressions are the universal language of emotions. However, a 2009 study showed that Western Europeans and Asians use a different strategy to decode facial expressions, and that the strategy employed by Asians cannot reliably distinguish between FACS-coded expressions of fear and disgust — thus suggesting that the expressions of emotions are not universal after all.







Moheb Costandi


Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System categorizes and documents every conceivable human facial expression according to which muscles or ’action units’ are tensed at any given time.