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Unmasking the Face

A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions

By Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen
18-minute read
Audio available
Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions  by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen

Unmasking the Face (2003) is an illuminating read about the subtleties of facial expressions. From the dynamics of surprise, fear, anger and happiness, to the eight styles of facial expression, these blinks shed light onto the complexity of an everyday skill that deserves more attention: reading other people’s emotions.

  • Readers interested in the psychology of social interaction
  • Professionals who deal with displays of emotion on a daily basis
  • People who want to gain insight into how they’re perceived by others

Paul Ekman is a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco and is renowned for his pioneering work in the study of human emotions, including his contribution to the discovery of microexpressions. In 2009, Ekman was named one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine.

Wallace V. Friesen is a lecturer at the University of Kentucky, where he also conducts research into emotion in old age, having coauthored many articles on emotions and longevity.

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Unmasking the Face

A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions

By Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions  by Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen
Synopsis

Unmasking the Face (2003) is an illuminating read about the subtleties of facial expressions. From the dynamics of surprise, fear, anger and happiness, to the eight styles of facial expression, these blinks shed light onto the complexity of an everyday skill that deserves more attention: reading other people’s emotions.

Key idea 1 of 11

Reading human facial expressions is a survival skill – but it can be a challenge too!

The ability to read facial expressions is an essential tool in our personal, professional and social lives.

In our close relationships, we observe the facial expressions of our partners to understand how they’re really feeling, while in the workplace, we use facial expressions to read between the lines during job interviews or important conversations where we’ve got to be sure whether someone’s telling the truth. In fact, in some professions, reading facial expressions is an indispensable part of the job.

A trial lawyer, for instance, can’t always trust a client on the basis of his words alone; physicians need to understand their patients’ emotional reactions to news about their health; and counselors, therapists and teachers all rely on their capacity to discern the emotional state of people of all ages.

So how do we read facial expressions? For us, it comes naturally – though some are more adept than others. The key to understanding facial expressions starts with knowing what signs to look for.

One of the most telling signs of someone’s emotional state is a rapid signal, a fleeting change to someone’s face through the quick movement of facial muscles in three areas: the eyebrows, the eyes and the mouth. These changes can be macro expressions, that is, visible for a few seconds, or micro expressions, visible for just a fraction of a second. It’s all too easy to confuse macro and micro expressions, or even miss them altogether, if you aren’t paying close attention to the face of your conversational partner.

A brief tightening at the mouth is one micro expression that often goes unnoticed. If you do pick it up, it’s a good indicator that your conversational partner is tense or disagrees with what you’re saying (even though they might not admit it). Another macro expression that’s difficult to miss is raised eyebrows; however, just because we notice this signal doesn’t mean we always interpret it correctly. Depending on the person, raised eyebrows with no expression in the rest of the face can signal mild disbelief, or even genuine alarm.

Raised eyebrows are often linked to surprise, although this is one emotion that requires a careful, simultaneous reading of all three areas of the face. In the next blink, we’ll examine the key signals for surprise and its nuances.

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