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By Cliff Lansley, Managing Director, Paul Ekman International

Reading Emotions -01

To survive in this world we need to be able to accurately read the information our body is giving to us; to interact constructively with others we also need to be able to read the signals given off by others in a variety of settings. So how do we ensure that we capture all this information, real-time, so we can make best use of it?

What are emotions?

First of all we need to define emotions as there are many definitions and taxonomies around these terms. Ekman separates out seven key emotions of fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise disgust and contempt and distinguishes them from moods, personality traits and disorders:

Ekman defines emotion as, “a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of physiological changes and emotional behaviours begins to deal with the situation”.

So emotions help us to deal with matters of importance to us, without thinking. This can save or enrich our lives, build relationships and also get us into trouble… since, often, these emotions are revealed to others through our primary non-verbal channel, the face.

Reading Emotions - Figure 1

These facial expressions – movements of more than 40 muscles in the face – combine to signal our emotions and cognitive processes. We know from Ekman’s research that all humans, irrespective of ethnicity or culture, display the seven universal emotions in the same way. In addition, under some circumstances, these emotions can be given off involuntarily in less than a fifth of a second, revealing a person’s true feelings. Such fleeting images are referred to as micro-expressions and we can all learn to recognise them. Here is an overview with some of the labels from the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) devised by Ekman to standardize the references to facial movements to aid research.


Why micro-expressions occur

Some or all of these facial muscles are engaged within ½ second of a trigger or the correlating emotion. In most people, for example, the loss of gravity (collapsing chair) or a snake will trigger fear – even in a baby and a chimpanzee who don’t understand the dangers of a fall or a snake. The Emotion Timeline Illustration provides a metaphor that helps to explain why micro-expressions happen.

Reading Emotions - Figure 2

These are the stages on the timeline:

1) Automatic Appraisal of a trigger to determine the degree to which it activates the relevant affect programme:

  • Trigger resembles something in the emotional alert data base
  • The auto-appraisal may be highly accurate or a distorted perception of a triggering event – in this case the coiled rope may be misjudged as a snake
  • Affect programme occurs in around 200 milliseconds

 2) Activation of relevant affect program:

  • Each emotion has a separate program
  • Each affect program contains instructions for:
    • Facial, vocal and postural signals
    • Preset changes in physiology to support preset actions
    • Learned changes in physiology to support learned actions
    • Actions – physical actions, words
    • Memories, images

3) The instructions in an affect program generate impulses within 400 milliseconds from the trigger

4) Impulses are translated into actions and signals (autonomic nervous system engaged) – and this is the key – these signals are pre-conscious and therefore reflect felt emotions

5) Learned Display Rules (to regulate the signals) and learned Feeling Rules (to modify, amplify or suppress the subjective feelings) are sometimes then employed to take the expression off the face (or mask it – e.g. anger towards a superior might be hidden with a forced smile for example) though this happens often after a very quick ‘flash’ of the genuine emotion. This is a micro-expression and is valuable because it is very hard, if not impossible to interfere with the impulse consciously.

The Refractory Period is initiated for a short time to only filter in information that supports the emotion being experienced to keep us focused – in this case on the potential threat of more snakes.

So what?

Even the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman suggest we cannot interfere with or manage the impulse; the spark before the flame. And why should we interfere with something designed to help us stay alive and build relationships? What we can do though is increase our emotional intelligence by:

  • Becoming aware of emotions as they arise by being attentive to the early sensations in our body immediately after the impulse
  • Learning to predict and weaken the impact of triggers by preparing ourselves
  • Becoming attentive to the micro-expressions that leak from others so we know how they really feel
  • Making wise choices about what you do with this information
  • Remembering the ethics; you are taking information from others that they may not want you to have.
  • Lengthening the time between impulse and action so we have time to make considered choices about our actions

About the author

Cliff Lansley -01Cliff Lansley is the Managing Director of Paul Ekman International which  specialises is using reliable science in developing and delivering programmes in emotional awareness and deception.

Cliff graduated in the UK in education/psychology at Manchester University and has over 25 years experience working at senior levels in public and private sector organisations facilitating leadership, communications, emotional intelligence and coaching programmes.


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