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In this lesson, we’ll discuss Paul Ekman and how he discovered the six basic emotions universal across all cultures. You can view images and read descriptions of these emotions, and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Who is Paul Ekman?

Psychologist Paul Ekman
Picture of Paul Ekman

After his mother developed a mental illness and committed suicide, psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman dedicated his life to psychotherapy and helping people with mental disorders. He first began his research in nonverbal communication in the 1950s, developing systematic ways to measure body language. In the process, he discovered that, through empirical research, he could consistently identify facial expressions created by the movement of muscles in the face. And so, Ekman extended his research to include facial expressions and their meanings.

The Six Basic Emotions

Before Ekman hit the scene, anthropologists like Margaret Mead widely believed that facial expressions and the emotions they represent are determined by culture – in other words, people learned to make and read facial expressions from their societies. In 1968, Ekman set out to test this notion.

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He traveled to Papua, New Guinea to study the facial expressions of the secluded Fore tribesmen, where he learned that they could consistently identify emotion in facial expressions by looking at photos of people from other cultures, even though the tribe had not been exposed to any outside cultures.It became evident, then, that facial expressions are cross-cultural; Ekman’s research revealed that there is a universal set of certain facial expressions used in both the Western and Eastern worlds. The list of universal facial expressions, which Ekman published in 1972, comprises the six basic emotions.

These are the emotions, along with their definitions and related muscular movements:

Emotion Picture Definition Facial Muscular Movements
Ekman Anger
Antagonism toward a person or object often experienced after you feel you’ve been wronged or offended Lowering eyebrows, tightening and narrowing lips, glaring eyes, tightened lower eyelids; and, less commonly, thrusting jaw forward
Ekman Happiness
Pleasant feeling of contentment and well-being Smiling – pulling up the corners of mouth, and contracting large orbital muscles around eyes
Ekman Surprise
Feeling of upset or surprise at an unexpected occurrence Raising eyebrows high (which may cause wrinkles across forehead), opening eyes wide, dropping jaw so mouth is agape
Ekman Disgust
Intense displeasure or condemnation caused by something offensive or repulsive Narrowing eyebrows, curling upper lip, wrinkling nose
Ekman Sadness
Feeling of unhappiness or sorrow Drooping eyelids, lowering corners of the mouth, pouting lips, downcast eyes
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