Paul Ekman and the study of microexpressions
Paul Ekman Not only is he one of the most mediatic psychologists (he has participated in the development of the series "Míénteme" and the movie "Inside Out"), he is also one of the pioneers in one of the most interesting fields of behavioral science: the study of language verbal and, more specifically, the microexpressions.
Knowing more about them could be very useful to improve our understanding of communication and the nature of basic and universal emotions, if they really exist.
What are microexpressions?
Basically, a micro expression is a facial expression performed involuntarily and automatically and that, in spite of lasting less than a second, theoretically it could be used to know the emotional state of the person who performs it.
According to the ideas of Ekman and other researchers, the microexpressions are universal , since they are the result of the expression of certain genes that cause certain muscle groups of the face to contract at the same time following a pattern each time a basic emotional state appears. Two other ideas derive from this: 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 gestures of the face.
Through the study of microexpressions, Paul Ekman has tried to see basic psychological and physiological mechanisms that theoretically are expressed in the same way in all human societies and that, therefore, would have a high degree of genetic heritability.
The 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 are a series of well-defined emotions and a predefined way of expressing them, this means that other members of the species can recognize them and Use this information for the good of your community.
In this way, situations of danger or those in which the importance of an element of the environment makes individuals become emotionally very activated , others may know instantly that something is happening, and they will search for clues to know in more detail what happens. This idea is not novel; Charles Darwin He already advanced it in his writings about emotions in humans and animals. However, more recent researchers have specialized in this field of study, devoting much of their time and effort to analyzing this small plot of psychology and physiology.
The role of education
It must be said that it is not yet known for sure if there are universal facial microexpressions. For that, the typical behavior of the members of all the cultures that exist, would have to be known and profound, and this is not the case. In addition, in a laboratory environment it is difficult to get people to experience the emotions that researchers want, and not others.
That's why, even though Paul Ekman has made efforts to investigate to what extent universal basic emotions exist and facial gestures associated with them, it is always possible that there is an exception in some remote corner of the planet and the theory of universality collapses.
However, evidence has been found that, at least for a few thousandths of a second, members of many cultures express their feelings through the same expressions.
For example, in a study published in Psychological Science based on the analysis of films showing how athletes who played a medal in the Olympic Games behaved, it was found that they all showed the same kind of microexpressions immediately after they knew they had won or lost , although later each one modulated these gestures depending on the culture to which it belonged. This is, exactly, the essence of the microexpressions on which Paul Ekman has theorized: first there is an automatic and stereotyped reaction to emotional stimuli, and right after that each one takes control over their gestures.
Gestures that betray us
Another of the most interesting ideas about microexpressions is that, being automatic, they can not be "hidden" or disguised with absolute success.
That is, if a person is sufficiently trained to detect microexpressions, will come to have some knowledge about the emotional state of the other person even if he tries to avoid it (unless you cover your face, of course).
However, to practice recognizing these microexpressions is not so simple, since in everyday situations there is a large amount of "noise" in the form of information that masks the way in which you can see how small facial muscles move. someone.In addition, a specialized team is often needed to capture a clear picture of these brief moments.
If microexpressions are generated following stereotypical patterns, it is logical to think that a method can be developed to systematically identify each of them. That's why, in the 70s Paul Ekman and his colleague Wallace V. Fiesen They developed a system to label each type of facial movement linked to an emotional state from the work of a Swedish anatomist called Carl-Herman Hjortsjö . This tool was called Facial Coding System (in English, FACS, Facial Action Coding System).
However, this does not mean, by far, that you can detect lies just by identifying microexpressions, and let's not talk about something like reading thoughts. The fact that these gestures are automatic because of the expression of genes makes, that, at the same time, the information provided by microexpressions is tremendously ambiguous, since the details of the context are not "translated" through the muscular movements in the face .
A micro-expression can be a sign to know if someone is sad or not at a certain time, but tells us nothing about what produces that feeling. The same happens with microexpressions linked to fear. They can be an indicator that it is feared that the lies that have been said are exposed, or they can also express the fear that we believe that what has been said are lies.
As always, the study of human behavior seldom advances at great strides, and Paul Ekman's work on microexpressions is nothing like a Rosetta stone of mental states. It can serve, yes, to learn more about our genetic predispositions when expressing emotions , and you can also study to learn patterns of empathy and communication improvement. However, as by definition microexpressions are automatic and unconscious, it would be impossible to directly influence them.