Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Ekman's basic emotions

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Ekman's basic emotions
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion textbook. See also: Guidelines.
Do we experience emotions as happening to us, or are they chosen by us? (Ekman, 1992)

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Are Emotions Universal or Culturally Determined?

Darwin's 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals created a foundation upon which many scientific theorists have debated the origin, characteristics and evolution of human emotions. Darwin believed that emotions were universally innate in all human beings, lending weight to his theory of evolution whereby humans and primates shared similar emotional expression (Darwin & Ekman, 1998). Consistent with Darwin's view on the universality of emotional expression, philosopher and psychologist Silvan Tomkins was instrumental in promoting facial expressions as having a key role in emotion (Tomkins, 1962), and influenced other psychologists, including Paul Ekman, to pursue empirical evidence supporting Darwin's views. Conversely, well known anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, unequivocally dismissed Darwin’s theories. Mead and Bateson argued that all social behaviour, including emotional expression, was a result of cultural experience and influence, and had little or no biological basis (Darwin & Ekman, 1998). Whilst there is still some contention on the innate nature of emotions, it is widely regarded and scientifically supported by an increasing body of evidence that emotions have a strong biological basis, universal to humans regardless of culture, yet subject to influence by social norms.

Biography: Paul Ekman[edit | edit source]

Dr Paul Ekman
(Photo: D. Freeman)
Born15th February 1934
Washington D.C.
Known forStudy of emotions, facial expressions & deception

Paul Ekman is regarded as a pioneer in the research of nonverbal communication, the physiology and expression of emotion, and the study of deception (Lifeboat Foundation, 2010). He studied at the University of Chicago and New York University as an undergraduate, where he developed an interest in the work of Freud, and decided to pursue a specialisation in psychotherapy (UC Berkeley, 2004). In 1958 Ekman completed his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the Adelphi University, New York, focussing on the role that a person's face and body played in communication, inspired by his participation in psychotherapy sessions where he observed more than just the expression of verbal cues. On completion of his Ph.D. he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he took up position as Chief Psychologist at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ekman also completed a three-year postdoctoral at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, within the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) (UC Berkeley). UCSF served as his place of work from 1960 till his retirement in 2004, where he is currently professor emeritus of psychology (Lifeboat Foundation).

Early in his studies of emotional expression, Ekman was influenced by three scientific mentors; Charles Darwin, Silvan Tomkins, and Duchenne de Boulogne (UC Berkeley, 2004). Darwin and Tomkins both believed in the universality of emotion and the innate nature of facial expressions. Tomkins was supportive of Ekman to conduct cross-cultural studies of facial expressions to support Tomkins' theories of universality, and assisted Ekman with his initial experiment (Darwin & Ekman, 1998).

Duchenne used photography to record facial expressions, a technique that Ekman used throughout his experiments.

Duchenne de Boulogne was a French neurologist whose legacy was his work on muscle contractions, particularly facial muscles (Hueston & Cuthbertson, 1978). Duchenne utilised early photography techniques to record facial expressions that he induced in subjects through the use of pinpointing electrical currents. The use of photographs of facial expressions was a technique that Ekman adopted to conduct his first experiment on the universal versus cultural origin of emotional expression debate.

Throughout his career, Dr Ekman has been awarded numerous grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, to continue his research programs (F.A.C.E. Training, 2010). Ekman's contributions to psychology was formally recognised by the American Psychological Association in 2001 by being named as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Dr Ekman is now the Director of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC (PEG), creating interactive training tools based on his life's research, and consulting to various organisations, such as law enforcement agencies, educational institutions and the scientific community.

Basic Emotions[edit | edit source]

"If all emotions are basic, what then is the value of using that term?" (Ekman, 1999)

Theoretical Framework[edit | edit source]

The term basic, in the context of emotions, has been used in a theoretical context to describe three different perspectives (Ekman, 1999):

  • Each emotion is uniquely different from each other. Regardless of the nature of the emotion being positive, for example, satisfaction, relief, contentment; or negative, as in the case of anger, fear or disgust; each emotion will show unique characteristics such as physiological and behavioural responses (Ekman, 1999).
  • Emotions are a learned response to deal with fundamental life tasks. These life tasks may be experiences such as achievement, frustration, danger, and so forth to which an individual attaches a specific emotion to adapt to the life task presented (Johnson-Laird & Oatley, 1992; Lazarus, 1991). In this perspective, emotions evolve from cumulative experiences of the past, not only one's own past, but also the past of our ancestors (Ekman, 1999).
  • The third point of view is that basic emotions are elemental, and combine together to form complex emotions, for example, contempt and happiness may occur simultaneously to express smugness (Ekman, 1999).
    Emotion is an automatic response, as in the case of a person responding in fear or surprise immediately after the sound of an explosion.

Ekman subscribed to the evolutionary approach that emotions are innate in characteristic and exist with some biological origin, yet are also adaptive to prepare and protect the individual engaged in specific inter- or intrapersonal activities. This concept has provided valuable direction into the research of the universality of antecedent events of emotion, emotional expression, physiology, and phylogenetic validity (Ekman, 1992a; Ortony & Turner, 1990). He describes emotions as being both an automatic response and an extended deliberate response (Ekman, 1994). An appraisal system forms part of any emotional response to stimuli. In an automatic response, the emotional expression is a near immediate response to an antecedent event and may appear involuntary in nature. For example, an individual may show instant surprise or fear at the sound of an explosion. Conversely, some emotion-relevant situations allow for deliberate cognitive processes to occur, such as in the case of being told of an event that one is not sure of how they are expected to react, perhaps subject to social norms (Ekman).

Ekman (1992) still maintains the importance of cultural and social influences to shape our emotions to enable coping mechanisms in emotion-relevant situations.

Characteristics that distinguish Basic Emotions[edit | edit source]

To qualify as a basic emotion within the basic emotion framework, the emotive response must adhere to a set of specific characteristics, and according to Ekman (1999) there are eleven criteria for an emotion to be considered basic and distinguishable from one another. These characteristics are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1

Characteristics that Distinguish Basic Emotions from Each Other Emotion
Characteristic Explanation
Distinctive universal signals Observing a man expressing the facial expression of disgust will make you assume that he is offended by a taste, sound or smell. This assumption is universal, not culture specific.
Emotion-specific physiology The autonomic nervous system (ANS) shows distinct activity for emotions of fear, anger and disgust (Ekman, Levenson & Friesen, 1983; Levenson, Ekman & Friesen, 1990)
Automatic appraisal mechanism External or internal stimuli can trigger an almost immediate emotional response without conscious awareness, e.g. reacting fearful when threatened.
Distinctive universals in antecedent events Certain stimuli will render a universal response, e.g. a loud noise will render surprise
Distinctive appearance developmentally Consistency in the first appearance of an emotion is still a question for debate, yet will prove useful in differentiating emotions from each other.
Presence in other primates Some emotions are similar in both humans and primates, e.g. fear, anger, joy (Chevalier-Skolnikoff, 1973; Redican, 1982)
Quick onset Emotion can occur before the individual is aware of it, enabling a rapid response to stimuli.
Brief duration An emotional response can last as short as several seconds, or minutes.
Unbidden occurrence Through automatic appraisal, emotions occur without being consciously chosen.
Distinctive thoughts, memories, images How an emotion is used and controlled is evident in our memories.
Distinctive subjective experience How does the emotion feel to the individual? Is there a unique physical sensation attached to the emotion?

Core Emotions[edit | edit source]

As mentioned earlier, the deliberation of prominent anthropologists that emotions were culture-specific contrasted against Darwin's belief that emotional expression was universal across all human beings. Although initially skeptical that emotions could be universally innate, Ekman was awarded a grant from the Advance Research Project Agency in 1966 to support him in his quest to obtain the evidence needed to solve the argument of emotional origin (UC Berkeley, 2004).

Early Research: The Six Core Emotions[edit | edit source]

Tomkins assisted Ekman with his first experiment, providing him with photographs of facial expressions, and together they created a list of terms to describe the emotions expressed within those photographs. Facial expressions were used as these features of emotion were easier and more reliable to measure than internal expression, such as those common to psychotherapy. Ekman travelled around the USA, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Japan, asking different participants to describe the emotion being expressed, by selection from a given list of words. Although each culture was uniquely different, the results of the experiment revealed a remarkable similarity in the relationship between facial expressions and emotions. After several years of similar studies, Ekman and psychologists Izard and Freisen had visited a total of 21 countries, and received overwhelming evidence to support the universality of emotions through facial expression (Darwin & Ekman, 1998).

Ekman visited New Guineans to see if their expressions were similar to Western expressions.

Ekman was strongly criticised for his results by Mead's protégé, anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, claiming that any of these cultures that participated may have been previously influenced by Western media, such as American television broadcasts, adding weight to the cultural argument for emotion.

Around that time, neurologist Carleton Gajdusek had been studying two tribes in an isolated region of (Papua) New Guinea and recorded over 200 000 feet of film of the people (Berkeley, 2004). Ekman and Freisen spent over a year studying their faces, coming to the conclusion that there were no culturally unique expressions to be seen. With the help of Tomkins, Ekman and Freisen collated photographs from the films of the tribesmen, maintaining the focus on the relationship between facial expression and certain emotions (Ekman & Freisen, 1971). They hypothesised that if this race of people, isolated from any influence of Western civilisation, could recognise a similarity of emotion in the faces of these photographs consistent with the results of previous studies, then emotional expression would prove to be biological in basis and undeniably universal.

The collection of photographs totalled 40, representing a cross-section of male and female New Guineans of varying ages. The facial expressions were indicative of six emotions that previous studies revealed as the most commonly associated emotion to that facial reaction (Ekman & Freisen, 1971). These six core emotions were; fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise. The chapter on Emotion and Facial Expressions discusses the nature of each of these emotions, and the mechanics behind each corresponding facial expression.

Although the tribe had some difficulty in differentiating between fear and surprise, possibly because these two emotions may be commonly expressed together in their circumstance, the remaining results proved the hypothesis. Upon their return, Ekman and Freisen (1971) reversed the experiment and showed a group of San Francisco students the photographs of the New Guineans, and once again, evidence supported that the Westernised group could accurately judge the emotion in the photograph by facial representation.

Additional Research: New Emotions[edit | edit source]

Since the attribution of the original six core emotions, much research has continued by Ekman and others to isolated further basic emotions. The 1980s saw new evidence for contempt, which is now commonly grouped with the original six, however no pan-cultural studies have been able to take place, as in the original experiments with the New Guineans (Ekman, 1992b).

Further studies throughout the 1990s posed a new group of emotions fitting the criteria for basic emotion status; guilt, shame, interest, embarrassment, awe and excitement, although empirical evidence for these still require building upon (Ekman, 1992b). The expansion of the core emotion list also rendered new groupings of these emotions into positive and negative emotions. Ekman (2003) suggested that there were possibly sixteen positive, or enjoyable, emotions, which included the sensory emotions, relief, wonder, ecstasy and bliss, though he proposed them purely for future investigation.

Can you guess which emotions these facial expressions represent?
The chapter on Emotion and Facial Expressions will help you learn to identify key features!

Applications of Research[edit | edit source]

Ekman's contribution to uncovering emotions has lead to new directions in research and practical applications in society.

In the scientific community, research is being refined on the role of the central nervous system in expressing emotion (Keltner & Ekman, 2003), and also the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and emotion-specific activity throughout the lifespan (Levenson, Carstensen, Ekman & Freisen, 1991).

With the aid of the Facial Action Coding System (Ekman & Friesen, 1978), the use of computer imagery analysis to automatically identify facial movements as a research tool in behavioural science is currently being developed (Bartlett, Hager, Ekman & Seinowski, 1999).

Ekman's research tools on facial expressions have also aided research to establish the impairment stages of emotion recognition in Parkinson's disease patients (Ibarretxe-Bilbao et al., 2009).

In the wider community, Department of Defense, law enforcement agencies, and various other government agencies have been able to utilise the results of Ekman's research to enhance national security.

In the general public, Ekman's work on non-verbal cues is relevant to anyone who strives for a greater understanding of interpersonal communication.

Key Points[edit | edit source]

Emotions have a strong biological basis, universal to humans regardless of culture, yet subject to influence by social norms.

There are three predominant theories to define basic emotions:

  • Each emotion is uniquely different from each other.
  • Emotions are a learned response, evolved from ancestral past, to deal with fundamental life tasks.
  • Basic emotions are elemental and combine together to form complex emotions.

Emotions are both an automatic response and an extended deliberate response.

There are eleven criteria to meet for an emotion to be considered basic and distinguishable from one another.

Each basic emotion is unique in physiology, signal and antecedent event, yet shares characteristics such as onset and duration, unbidden occurance and automatic appraisal, with other emotions.

Ekman and his team showed photographs of facial expressions depicting varying emotions to participants across 21 countries, and isolated tribesmen in (Papua) New Guinea, before he could conclude with supporting evidence that emotional expression through facial features was universal.

Based on this evidence, six core emotions were isolated; fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise.

Further emotions have been identified as having core attributes, such as contempt, excitement,guilt, shame, however more empirical evidence is needed. {{Hide in print|

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Chevalier-Skolnikoff, S. (1973). Facial expression of emotion in nonhuman primates. In P. Ekman (Ed.), Darwin and Facial Expression. New York: Academic Press.

Darwin, C., & Ekman, P. (1998). Afterword. In P. Ekman (Ed.), The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Paul Ekman. (2010). About Ekman. Retrieved from

Ekman, P. (1992a). Are There Basic Emotions?. Psychological Review, 99(3), 550-553.

Ekman, P. (1992b). An Argument for Basic Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3/4), 169-200.

Ekman, P. (1994). All Emotions are Basic. In P. Ekman & R. Davidson (Eds.), The Nature of Emotion. Oxford University Press.

Ekman, P. (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (Chapter 3). Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Ekman, P. (2003). 16 Enjoyable Emotions. Emotion Researcher, 18, 6-7.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 124-129.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1978). Facial Action Coding System: A technique for the measurement of facial movement. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Ekman, P., Levenson, R. W., & Friesen, W. V. (1983). Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes between emotions. Science, 221, 1208-1210.

F.A.C.E. Training. (2010). About Paul Ekman. Retrieved from

Hueston, J. T., & Cuthbertson, R. A. (1978). Duchenne de Boulogne and Facial Expression. Annals of Plastic Surgery, 1(4), 411-420.

Ibarretxe-Bilbao, N., Junque, C., Tolosa, E., Marti, M., Valldeoriola, F., Bargallo, N., & Zarei, M. (2009). Neuroanatomical correlates of impaired decision-making and facial emotion recognition in early Parkinson’s disease. European Journal of Neuroscience, 30, 1162-1171.

Johnson-Laird, P. N., & Oatley, K. (1992). Basic emotions: a cognitive science approach to function, folk theory and empirical study. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 201-223.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levenson, R. W., Ekman, P., & Friesen. W. V. (1990). Voluntary facial expression generates emotion-specific nervous system activity. Psychophysiology, 27, 363-384.

Levenson, R. W., Carstensen, L. L., Ekman, P., & Friesen. W. V. (1991). Emotion, Physiology, and Expression in Old Age. Psychology and Aging, 6(1), 28-35.

Lifeboat Foundation. (2010). Advisory Board: Dr Ekman. Retrieved from

Ortony, A., & Turner. T. J. (1990). What’s basic about basic emotions? Psychological Review, 97, 315-331.

Redican. W. K. (1982). An evolutionary perspective on human facial displays. In P. Ekman (Ed.), Emotion in the Human Face. (2nd ed.). New York: Pergamon.

Tomkins, S. S. (1962). Affect, imagery, consciousness, Vol 1. The positive affects. New York: Springer-Verlag.

UC Berkeley. (2004). Conversation with Paul Ekman. Retrieved from

External Links

Books by Ekman

Dr Paul Ekman has authored and co-authored many books and journal publications.
For a comprehensive list, visit the Publications page on his website.

Other Interesting Resources

Dr Paul Ekman was included in Time magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People in 2009.

See Unmasking the Truth, an interview on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes featuring Liz Hayes and Dr Ekman (Friday, August 7, 2009).

LIE TO ME is a drama series featured on the FOX network. The main character is a lie detection expert by the name of Dr Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), whose skills are based on that of Ekman.

Dr Ekman also publishes a blog explaining the scientific basis of each LIE TO ME episode.

Lie to Me Homepage
Lie to Me Homepage