About Face: Emotions and Facial Expressions May Not Be Related

For half a century, one theory about the way we experience and express emotion has helped shape how we practice psychology, do police work, and even fight terrorism. But what if that theory is wrong?

So there’s no such thing as a basic emotion? It sounds crazy. But this is where all sorts of brain science is headed. Researchers once assumed that the brain stored specific memories, but now they’ve realized that there is no such stash to be found. Memories, the new science suggests, are actually reconstructed anew every time we access them, and appear to us a little differently each time, depending on what’s happened since. Vision works in a similar way. The brain, it turns out, doesn’t consciously process every single piece of information that comes its way. Think of how impossibly distracting the regular act of blinking would be if it did. Instead, it pays attention to what you need to pay attention to, then raids your memory stores to fill in the blanks.

In the spring of 2006, Barrett published a pair of controversial papers. The first, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, compiled every argument and question she’d found during the previous 16 years that challenged the “natural-kind view”—her term for Ekman’s theory. “The natural-kind view has outlived its scientific value,” she declared, “and now presents a major obstacle to understanding what emotions are and how they work.” The second paper, which appeared in Personality and Social Psychology Review, sketched out a richer research agenda and promised to resolve the inconsistencies and address the problems that had emerged in the prior 50 years of emotion research.

The papers provoked strong reactions. In many quarters, Barrett was angrily attacked for her ideas, and she’s been the subject of criticism ever since. “I think Lisa does a disservice to the actual empirical progress that we’re making,” says Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychologist who studies positive emotions and has debated publicly with Barrett in the past. “There are a zillion data points on a perspective that conforms to Ekman, and the alternative has yet to be documented convincingly.” Keltner told me that he himself has coded thousands of facial expressions using Ekman’s system, and the results are strikingly consistent: Certain face-emotion combinations recur regularly, and others never occur. “That tells me, ‘Wow, this approach to distinct emotions has real power,’” he says.


The photographs above were used by Paul Ekman in the 1960s and 1970s as he conducted his pioneering cross-cultural studies of emotion. Subjects were shown the photographs and asked to match what they saw in them to a list of emotions, or stories about emotions. Ekman reported striking results: People all over the world matched the same faces to the same emotions, suggesting that we all express basic emotions in the same way, regardless of age, gender, or culture. From left, the emotions shown above, as described by Ekman, are anger, contempt (modeled by Ekman himself), disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, and fear.

But Barrett’s papers and her subsequent work have also attracted praise. According to the Stanford psychologist James Gross, they have made her “one of the most important contemporary figures in the field.” Michael Spivey, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Merced, contends that Barrett is “almost single-handedly taking the field of emotion research into the 21st century.” In 2007, too, the National Institutes of Health unanimously awarded Barrett a Pioneer Grant, as part of an initiative aimed at funding high-risk-high-payoff ideas in science. Barrett received $3.9 million, to be used in her emotion studies however she saw fit. She is only the second psychologist ever to have won the prize.

For his part, Ekman likes to remain above the fray these days. “If you can show Ekman’s wrong,” he said when I asked him about Barrett and others who have attacked his ideas, “you’ll become famous. I’m not saying that’s their motive. I’m only describing the reality.”


Ekman reached the peak of his fame in the years following 2001. That’s the year the American Psychological Association named him one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. The next year, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about him in the New Yorker, and in 2003 he began working pro bono for the TSA. A year later, riding the updraft of success, he left his university post and started the Paul Ekman Group, a consulting firm that he still runs today, which has taught police departments, law-enforcement agencies, and intelligence-gathering services how to read faces for emotions. David Matsumoto, an Ekman protégé, has provided similar services to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Federal Judges, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and even to doctors at the Mayo Clinic through his own California-based company, Humintell, which he founded in 2009. Both Ekman and Matsumoto have created websites on which you can buy introductory face-reading kits for less than $30.

Ekman and his ideas, in other words, still have a powerful influence on society at large, and scientists in a variety of disciplines continue to rely on his research. But doubts are emerging. In 2010, for example, forensic psychologists at the University of British Columbia reported in Legal and Criminological Psychology that when they’d actually gone looking for the link between the microexpressions of liars and certain universal emotions (the kind of link upon which Ekman’s theory depends), they hadn’t been able to find it. The authors wrote, “We, like most everyone else, it seemed, presumed the firm empirical foundation of the validity of microexpressions in relation to deception. But in 2006, despite reading of anecdotal evidence, we were unable to find any published empirical research on the phenomenon.”

That same year, even the U.S. Government Accountability Office weighed in, releasing a report suggesting that SPOT, the TSA’s behavior-detection program, might have been launched without proper scientific confirmation that its underlying premise was valid. A subcommittee hearing and several follow-up reports later, the program’s status remains uncertain, despite $200 million that has been spent annually on it since 2003. “If governments are buying into notions that are not scientifically sound or empirically supported,” says Maria Hartwig, a deception researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who testified at the hearing, “then I think the money’s being wasted.”