Paul Ekman Biography – Contributions To Psychology

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

Given the extensive impact of his scientific work, Paul Ekman has been ranked as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Paul Ekman

Who Is Paul Ekman?

Paul Ekman is an American psychologist, professor, and author who is renowned for his pioneering work on human emotions and their link to facial expressions. He is a co-discoverer of microexpressions and a leading expert in the science of deception.

Paul Ekman's Early Life

Paul Ekman was born to Jewish parents in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 1934 . He had an older sister named Joyce. Ekman spent the first eight years of his life in Newark, New Jersey, but after his father entered the army, the family moved to several different army bases in Washington, Oregon, and finally, Southern California. In the first year of his father’s enlistment, Ekman changed schools three times.

As a boy, Ekman was no stranger to religious discrimination. While attending Junior High, fellow students distanced themselves from him after learning that he was Jewish. For two and a half years, between the ages of nine and twelve, none of the other students spoke to him. In Ekman’s own words, he “had no opportunity for friendship” during that time and had to learn to be self-sufficient. In later years, Ekman traced his somewhat rebellious, oppositional nature to this defining childhood experience.

Early Experience With Mental Illness

Ekman’s parents were both well-educated—his father was a pediatrician and his mother, an attorney. However, his relationship with his parents was difficult, to say the least. He once remarked that he had “the two worst parents [he] could imagine.” His mother developed an emotional disorder (which Ekman suspects may have been bipolar disorder) and after asking him to save her, committed suicide when Ekman was just 14 years of age. Following this tragic event, Ekman determined that he would dedicate his life to helping people like his mother who experience mental illness. It was at this point that he decided to become a psychologist. Ekman was also fond of photography and for a while, contemplated having a second career as a photographer.

Choice to Pursue Psychology 

Ekman’s father enjoyed his work and according to Ekman, was the only pediatrician at the time who would serve colored patients. He had high hopes that his son would become a doctor and join him in his pediatric practice. He found Ekman’s decision to pursue psychology offensive and throughout his life, gave no indication that he approved of his son’s choice.

In an interview, Ekman described his relationship with his father as ‘extraordinarily painful.’ He recalled his father as a womanizer whose unfaithfulness gradually chipped away at his mother’s sense of worth. He felt cursed by his father, who in disgust once told him: “I hope when you grow up you will have a child who will make you as miserable as you’ve made me.” As an adult, Ekman admitted that he never liked his father but at the very least, he admired his intelligence and his dedication to helping vulnerable people.

Educational Background and Career

Ekman’s rebellious nature was quite evident during his adolescent years.  He did not graduate from high school but was expelled for talking back to his teachers. Upon learning that the University of Chicago would accept students who had completed just two years of high school once they passed an admissions test, he applied and was accepted in 1949. He was only 15 years old at the time.

After three years of undergraduate study at Chicago, Ekman transferred to New York University (NYU) and graduated with a B.A. in 1953. During his studies, he developed a keen interest in Sigmund Freud and decided that he would become a practicing psychoanalyst. At the time, he reasoned that this would be the best way of helping others and making a positive contribution in the world. 

Adelphi University

Ekman then went on to pursue graduate studies at Adelphi University. While observing group therapy sessions as part of his studies, he recognized that people were communicating not just with their words but also through their body movements and facial expressions. He decided that these nonverbal forms of communication also needed to be studied scientifically in order to enhance the process of psychotherapy. He thus became interested in developing objective methods of measuring nonverbal behavior. Very few psychologists at the time viewed this as a worthy topic for scientific inquiry but Ekman, true to his oppositional nature, thought otherwise.

National Institute of Mental Health 

Ekman was awarded a pre-doctoral research fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1955 to pursue research for his masters thesis. He also worked part time as a clinical psychologist at a hospital for the mentally ill to help pay for his tuition. He earned his Ph.D in clinical psychology in 1958 after completing a one-year clinical internship at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF).

Time in the U.S. Military

Immediately after completing his doctoral degree, Ekman was drafted into the US Army and served for two years as a first lieutenant-chief psychologist at Fort Dix, New Jersey. While there, he conducted various studies that led to changes in how the army handled disciplinary issues that involve people who go AWOL. Recognizing the impact that research could have on real world problems, Ekman determined that he would focus more on research than on clinical work after leaving the army.


After being discharged in 1960, Ekman spent a few months as a staff researcher at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital before returning to the Langley Porter Institute at UCSF. Although the Institute did not provide a salary, it served as a base from which he could try to obtain grants and fellowships for his research. At first, he received a three-year post-doctoral fellowship from the NIMH to continue his research on nonverbal behavior. The NIMH, along with other organizations such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defence, and the National Science Foundation, would continue to be Ekman’s main source of financial support until 1972, when he was appointed as a professor of psychology at UCSF.

Ekman remained at UCSF until his retirement in 2004. He is currently professor emeritus of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF’s Medical School. After retiring from his academic position, Ekman founded the Paul Ekman Group (PEG), a company that provides empirically-based resources to improve people’s understanding of facial expressions.

Basic Emotions and Universal Facial Expressions

Based on his research, Ekman proposed that there are six basic emotions: anger, happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, and surprise. He also argued that each of these emotions is associated with distinct facial expressions and that these expressions are universal. In other words, they are innate and biological, as Charles Darwin had previously suggested.

Stories in Papua New Guinea

Evidence in support of Ekman’s propositions came from a series of cross-cultural studies he conducted in the late 1960’s. Ekman and his colleagues studied people from a geographically remote, pre-literate culture known as the Fore in Papua New Guinea. Members of this group had experienced very little contact with outside cultures and the participants in Ekman’s study were among the most isolated within that society. They had never seen a movie, been exposed to the media, or lived or worked with Caucasians before. They had never even seen a reflection of their own faces in a mirror!

It was important to Ekman that his study be conducted in an isolated tribe such as this so as to ensure no contamination from the outside world. In this way, if common expressions were found, no one could argue that the tribespeople had learned or adopted these expressions through exposure to other cultures.

On one of his trips to Papua New Guinea, Ekman brought along with him a set of photographs which he had determined best represented the primary emotions. He presented each participant with three photographs and read a brief scenario related to just one of the three basic emotions depicted. The scenarios were ones to which the Fore people could relate. For example, the scenario for sadness was “A child has died.” This method of using scenarios was chosen to overcome the difficulty of accurately translating the relevant English terms into Fore words. Ekman found that Fore people were just as accurate in matching the scenario (and by extension, the emotion) with the corresponding picture as were people from literate cultures.

Results of Studies in Papau New Guinea

On a return trip to New Guinea, Ekman chose another set of participants and asked them to express the emotions associated with various scenarios. Their expressions were videotaped and later shown to college students in the US. If facial expressions were culture-specific, as prominent anthropologists at the time had suggested, the students would have difficulty figuring out what each expression meant. However, the students displayed a high level of accuracy in identifying the expressed emotions.

Ekman’s studies also took him to other countries, including Japan, Argentina, and Brazil. Regardless of where he went, however, people attached the same meaning to the expressions they were shown. These results provided support for Ekman’s hypothesis that the primary emotions are universal and are not determined by culture.

Microexpressions and Deception Detection

People constantly manage their facial expressions in social interactions. At times, this is done deliberately in an attempt to mislead or deceive others. In other cases, it is done unwittingly simply because we have internalized what Ekman calls the “display rules” that exist in our culture. Display rules refer to the social norms that dictate how individuals control the expression of their basic emotions. For example, children in many cultures are taught not to give their parents an angry look so they develop the habit of concealing such expressions.

Ekman believes it is possible to spot concealed basic emotions but that most people need to be trained in order to do so. He suggests that two things occur when people try to hide their true feelings: 1)  the expression is reduced in time, lasting a mere fraction of a second, and 2) the expression becomes very tiny or subtle. These microexpressions, as Ekman termed them, are easily overlooked in day-to-day interactions, but are one of the most telling sources of information when trying to detect instances of lying or deception.

Although individuals may work hard to hide their true emotions, these have a tendency to leak through microexpressions. Even so, Ekman is quick to point out that a single microexpression cannot provide definitive proof of deception. When combined with additional cues from speech, voice, and body language, however, the rate of accuracy in detecting deception increases greatly.

Facial Action Coding System

Building on years of research, Ekman and his colleagues developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS)—a comprehensive tool for measuring facial movement. The FACS was first published in 1978 and revised in 2002. It allows trained individuals to categorize facial movements based on the specific muscles involved in an expression.

To develop the FACS, Ekman and his main collaborator, Wallace Friesen, spent seven years studying every inch of the human face and every conceivable facial expression. They spent hours poring over medical textbooks to learn the location of the facial muscles and many months sitting across from each other, locating these muscles in their own faces and using them to make different expressions. They also sought to identify every distinct movement that could be made by the facial muscles. In the end, they were able to identify 43 such movements, which they termed ‘action units.’

Ekman and Friesen’s next move was to study combinations of action units to determine the resulting facial expressions.They studied combinations of two to six action units, resulting in over 10,000 distinct facial configurations. Some of these expressions do not carry much meaning and can be likened to the type silly faces children sometimes make. However, Ekman estimates that about 3000 are meaningful.The FACS is an extensive catalogue of these expressions and their links to human emotions.

In some cases, the same emotion may be expressed using several different combinations of facial muscles. For example, according to Ekman, there are eighteen different combinations of facial muscles which produce expressions which people label as disgust. The FACS distinguishes among all these related expressions. Each distinct facial expression is associated with a particular number.

The FACS consists of both photos and text, including rules for interpreting the facial expressions. Training is offered through the Paul Ekman Group, which provides self-instructional materials that individuals may use to learn, practice and test their knowledge of the system.

Facial Expressions and the Autonomic Nervous System

While working on the FACS, Ekman and Friesen stumbled upon an interesting discovery. They both noticed that after a session of trying to make the faces associated with anger and distress, they actually began to feel “poorly.” Upon closer monitoring of their bodily reactions during certain facial movements, they discovered that facial expressions alone were enough to produce changes in the autonomic nervous system. For example, when Ekman made a facial expression associated with anger, his heart rate would increase by several beats.

This observation was interesting enough that Ekman, Friesen, and another colleague decided to investigate it scientifically. The study they designed involved monitoring two physiological indicators of anger, sadness, and fear, namely heart rate and body temperature, among two groups of participants. One group was asked to recall and relive a very stressful experience, while the other group was asked to produce certain facial movements associated with the three emotions. The researchers found that both groups of participants displayed the same kind of physiological responses. Based on this, they concluded that the link between emotions and facial movements works both ways—not only do emotions trigger facial expressions, but facial expressions can also elicit emotions.


There is a lot to learn from Paul Ekman's work with emotions, both understanding them and recognizing them in others!

The FACS has become the gold standard for coding facial movements and has been used to train a wide array of professionals. These include psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, and zoologists. The FACS is also widely used in research.

Ekman’s work, including the FACS, is especially valuable in the field of law enforcement. For example, Ekman has assisted with counter-terrorism training at both the FBI and the CIA. He has taught agents—among other things—how to detect lies during observation and interrogation. His research is also a major part of the science behind SPOT, an airport security program developed by the Transport Security Administration in the United States. SPOT, which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, involves training airport security personnel to identify individuals who might pose a threat to security.

Ekman’s work has also garnered the attention of Hollywood producers, serving as the inspiration behind the popular US television series Lie to Me. Ekman has also consulted with cartoon animators at major film studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks, providing advice on how to give life-like expressions to characters.


Given the sheer number of facial expressions included in the FACS, a sizable investment of time is required in order to learn and use it effectively. Ekman estimates that it can take anywhere from 50 to 100 hours to master the system, which may seem daunting and tedious to many individuals. 

Many of Ekman’s critics have raised questions about the reliability of the SPOT program, citing high-profile cases of passengers who were wrongly deemed as a security threat. Their main argument is that Ekman has not subjected his behavior-based lie-detection techniques to controlled scientific tests in order to determine their effectiveness.

Other scholars have criticized aspects of the methodology employed in Ekman’s studies. For example, they argue that the process of selecting photographs of basic emotions is too subjective, being based primarily on Ekman’s own intuition. Others have criticized his use of the fixed-choice format of responding, where participants select from a list of labels the one that best describes the facial expression shown. They argue that the rate of accuracy in recognizing basic emotions would be lower if participants were given the opportunity to provide free responses.

Another point of contention for many critics is the fact that Ekman has not submitted his recent research for peer review on the basis that revealing details of his work could present security risks for the United States. This makes it difficult for his findings to be tested by other social scientists, some of whom claim that Ekman is simply trying to shield himself from criticism.

Ekman’s claim regarding the universality of emotions has also been challenged by other researchers who have found evidence suggesting that cultural heritage does in fact influence the ways in which emotions are recognized and expressed.

Paul Ekman's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Ekman has been the recipient of multiple awards and honorary degrees, including the Research Scientist Award from the NIMH which he received on six separate occasions. Among his other accomplishments are the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association (1991) and the William James Fellow Award from the American Psychological Society (1998).

Ekman was ranked 59th on a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century based on a study published in the journal Review of General Psychology. In 2009, he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

Books and Articles 

Ekman has published over 100 articles and has authored, co-authored, or co-edited numerous books. These include:

  • Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code, 2016
  • Moving Toward Global Compassion, 2014
  • Emotion in the Human Face: Guidelines for Research and Integration of Findings, 2013
  • Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, 2009
  • Emotional Awareness: Overcoming Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, 2008
  • Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, 2007
  • What the Face Reveals: Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), 1997
  • The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions, 1994
  • Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness, 1989
  • Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research: Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction, 1982
  • Unmasking The Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions, 1975

Personal Life

Ekman has been married four times. His fourth and last marriage was to Mary Ann Mason, a former professor and dean of graduate studies at the University of California-Berkeley. They had a daughter named Eve and Ekman adopted Mason’s son from a previous marriage. Eve followed in her father’s footsteps and became a social scientist with an interest in emotional awareness. Ekman’s wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2020.

Is Paul Ekaman Still Alive? 

As of 2022, Paul Ekman is still alive. Despite his exceptional ability to read facial expressions, Ekman insists that he knows how and when to turn off this skill. For example, he was keen on limiting its use in his interactions with his daughter. In his downtime, Ekman enjoys listening to music, especially songs by Paul Simon. His favourite movies are Casablanca and For Whom the Bells Toll.


American Psychological Association. (2002). Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), 29. Retrieved from

Barrett, R. J., & Katsikitis, M. (2003). Foreign faces: A voyage to the land of Eepica. (pp. 1-28). In M. Katsikitis (Ed.), The human face: Measurement and meaning. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Ekman, P. (1987). A life’s pursuit. In T. A. Sebeok & J. Umiker-Sebeok (Eds.), The semiotic web 1986 (pp. 3-45). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ekman, P. (2016). Nonverbal messages: Cracking the code. Retrieved from

Gladwell, M. (2002). The naked face. Retrieved from

Guthrie, J. (2002). The lie detective: S.F psychologist has made a science of reading facial expressions. Retrieved from

Kreisler, H. (2004). Face to face: The science of reading faces. Retrieved from

Psychologist Pul Ekman: Getting to know the man behind the success. (2018). Retrieved from

Short, D. (n.d.). The power of two. Retrieved from

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, March). Paul Ekman Biography - Contributions To Psychology. Retrieved from

About The Author

Photo of author