Why Learn About Facial Expressions and Emotions

Paul Ekman

Dr. Paul Ekman

From Paul Ekman’s Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions…[Learning about facial expressions and emotions is useful] for psychotherapists, ministers, physicians and nurses, trial lawyers, personnel managers, salesmen, teachers, actors. 

The psychotherapist must know how people experience emotions. He must be alert to what the face may tell him about his patient’s feelings. He can’t rely solely upon the patient’s words, for sometimes the patient can’t describe his feelings. The patient’s face may show the emotion being experienced even when it is too upsetting to put into words, when he doesn’t have the words to describe his feelings, or when he doesn’t know how he feels.

The minister, or indeed anyone who counsels people, has the same needs as the psychotherapist.

The physician and the nurse also need to understand emotions and facial expressions. People have an emotional reaction to their illness or the threat of illness which may be crucial in its outcome. The physician and the nurse must understand the different ways people experience fear, for this is a common emotional reaction to the possibility of illness and treatment, and may heighten pain, prevent early detection of illness, interfere with treatment plans, etc. And not everyone who is afraid of cancer, or surgery, will experience that fear in the same way. Recognizing sadness, which is often a reaction to loss, and helping a patient to deal with it can be an important factor in the patient’s recovery when there is lingering or permanent disability. If many of the theories about psychosomatic disorder are correct, then the experience of anger also should be understood. Patients with a physical illness are often reluctant or embarrassed to mention their feelings about being sick, their fear or sadness, their feelings of self-disgust, and so forth. Physicians and nurses must, therefore, learn to interpret accurately facial expressions and facial signs that emotions are being controlled.

The trial lawyer often can’t trust the words of a witness or client. He needs another source, such as the face, to tell him how the person really feels. Trial lawyers emphasize the importance of reading emotional reactions in picking jurors and in assessing how a jury, once selected, reacts to different lines of argument.

The personnel manager and the salesman may be in the same spot as the trial lawyer. In conducting an employment interview, the personnel man-ager wants to recognize signs that the applicant is controlling his feelings. For example, is his apparent confidence genuine, or is it covering nervousness about his capability. Is he really as interested in this job as he says he is. The face can allow him to check on how the applicant really feels about the job. The salesman knows that the feelings which motivate a decision to buy may never be put into words, or the words may not be trustworthy.

The teacher needs to know whether or not the students understand what he is saying. Interest, concentration, and perplexity are shown on the face.

The actor must understand the complexity of emotional experience in attempting to convey an emotion in performance. The discussion of deception may help him prevent his personal feelings from leaking through in his performance. When the actor is feeling his way into the emotional experience of a character, he needs to be sure that his expression of that emotion is commonly understood. And he should find the facial blueprints useful in understanding and perfecting his own ability to show emotions.

All these professionals-psychotherapists, physicians, nurses, trial lawyers, personnel managers, salesmen, teachers-need also to become aware, like the actor, of the impressions they give in their own facial expressions to their various “audiences.”

…[Learning about facial expressions and emotions is useful] for job applicants, loan seekers, customers, voters, jurymen 

The job applicant and the loan seeker need to know what impression they give by their own facial expressions to the personnel manager or bank officer, for certainly they are under scrutiny. They may want also to watch the face of the personnel manager or bank officer to gauge his reaction to them.

Customers may be concerned about the honesty of the salesman – has that car really been driven by just one little old lady?

The voter is often concerned with the man as well as his politics-how trustworthy he is in what he says, whether or not his campaign promises can be believed. In these days of television politics, this becomes even more of an issue.

The juryman can’t assume that the witness or defendant is telling the truth, or knows the truth. Understanding facial expressions may help him distinguish what the person testifying actually feels from what he wants people to think he feels. The juryman must also understand the experience of emotions if he is to comprehend fully the motivations behind certain criminal acts. Whether or not there were mitigating circumstances may depend upon the emotional state of the defendant. The reliability of a witness’s account may depend upon understanding his emotional experience at the time of the crime as well as at the time he is giving his account.

…[Learning about facial expressions and emotions is useful] for friends, spouses, parents, lovers, relatives

…[Learning about facial expressions and emotions] is relevant as well to any relationships that are not mechanical, perfunctory, and businesslike. Everyone has relationships in which there is little or no emotional investment. Feelings are not shared; neither person makes an attempt to know the other’s feelings, and to do so would be an affront. Everyone also has relationships in which the intimate sharing of feelings is the main core. It is no accident that in intimacy faces moves closer together. Intimates also look more into each others’ faces. People keep in sight pictures of the faces of those with whom they feel intimate. Though a telephone call is better than a letter, if you expect an important emotional experience or want to describe one that has just occurred (wedding, divorce, death, job promotion, etc.), you want to see the look on the other person’s face and you want your face to be seen.

Wanting to share feelings does not necessarily make this an easy thing to do. Intimates may find it hard to understand or accept the differences in how they experience an emotion. Intimacy may not survive such differences precisely because they are not understood. “You can’t be angry about that; “I don’t believe it!” “If you were afraid, why didn’t you tell me?” It is very hard to understand that people you care about, people you love, don’t experience feelings the same way you do. Facial expressions that show feelings may be misinterpreted or missed entirely. If you don’t fully understand the different ways a feeling may be experienced, how another’s way may differ from your way of experiencing that feeling-if you don’t know the various ways the face may show that same feeling-the chances for misunderstanding, for seeming inconsideration, multiply. This book is no panacea for the problems of intimacy, for not all those problems are due to misunderstanding, and misunderstandings can’t be resolved by reading a book. But the descriptions of the varieties of emotional experience and the blueprints of facial expressions should help.

…[Learning about facial expressions and emotions is useful] for you alone

Understanding emotional experience applies not just to your relation-ships with others but also to your relationship with yourself. It can help you understand the most private, personal, unique part of your self. This is apart of your self which has enormous power over your life. Your work, your life, and even your death can be determined by your feelings. Sexual needs may not be satisfied, hunger not met, work not completed because of feelings that interfere. Feelings can motivate the taking of your own life or the life of another. Struggles of an extraordinary nature may be endured, awe-some feats accomplished because of feelings. Yet we know less about our feelings than we do about our teeth, our car, or our neighbor’s escapades.

About Stu Dunn

With a background in sales and behavioural science, I enjoy learning more about people, behaviour, psychology - which led into motivation - and more recently - sales again. Having started my own real estate company with my wife, it's time to merge interests.
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4 Responses to Why Learn About Facial Expressions and Emotions

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  2. Pingback: Anger, Contempt & Disgust Indicators of Violence & Dangerous Intent: Risk Prevention | The Blog for Stu Dunn

  3. Pingback: Why Study Micro Expressions | The Blog for Stu Dunn

  4. john says:

    This book was my first introduction to micro Expressionst.

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