Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review: Emotions Revealed

Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. Henry Holt & Co., 2004.

I had expected this book to be much more detailed than it was—the first hundred pages or so are just background material, and you don’t get into the meat of the text until almost half way through. Even then, it spends much more time on the “emotions” aspect, and much less on the “revealed” portion.

According to his research, there are seven emotions that are linked to universal facial expressions. For the skeptics in the audience, he demonstrated experimentally that (a) congenitally blind children—who have never seen a facial expression—make the same expressions, (b) people typically don’t realize that they made a facial expression, and (c) when in a private setting, people around the world make the same expressions for these emotions.[1]

What is emotion? According to Ekman, emotion is an intuitive response to a vital life event, an autopilot, if you will. Emotionally, we can respond long before we become consciously aware—we may, in fact, never become consciously aware of what is causing our emotions.[2] He describes our senses working with our emotions as “auto-appraisers” that scan our environment for pertinent information that we either react to emotionally, or pass on to our conscious mind for evaluation.[3]

That emotions are displayed in the face is self-evident. What is less so is that facial expression can be a reliable indicator of emotion. Particularly since the expressions typically last for about 1/5 of a second before the conscious mind assumes control. Ekman argues that these micro-expressions are reliable indicators, but he also adds enough caveats to his claim that it casts doubt on his conclusion. For example:

· People who make a habit of controlling their emotions may be able to control their micro-expressions as well. This usually uses positive commands such as “Stay calm,” rather than “Don’t panic.” This approach does require training and practice.

· People can mask their emotions by dwelling on an event with an appropriate emotion, i.e., reimagining a happy experience to maintain a happy expression.

· People rarely display a pure emotion. It usually is a mixture or melding of multiple emotions and expressions.

· The intensity of an emotional display varies. Emotion, like expression, varies in its length and intensity, and the micro-expression can vary as well.

· Even given all of the above, detecting emotion via a micro-expression does not tell you why the person is experiencing the emotion, where the emotion is directed, and how life experiences change individual reactions.

In conclusion, it is amazing what you notice when you’re looking for something. Knowing that micro-expressions exist, and watching for them, is just another piece of the puzzle. Watch their face as you ask a question, and see if the reaction matches the rest of the story, or if a deeper look is needed.


[1] Consider, then, that if people’s emotional displays vary the world over, emotional translators would be as common as language translators.

[2] For example, humans are capable of smelling adrenaline, but we do not become conscious of it. When your hackles rise, it’s likely that you’re sensing someone’s adrenaline.

[3] Ekman believes that there is “species constant learning,” or those threats which our ancestors faced are more likely to be perceived as a threat. Thus snakes, for example, are unconsciously noticed as a threat, whereas a firearm is not.

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