Ekman emotion recognition test


I’m looking at Paul Ekman’s FACS system at the moment, the pictures that he uses to illustrate the system are pretty amusing. This, for example, is from an article in The Guardian asking “Can You Decode These Emotions?”


It’s a bit like Japanese rockabilly or something. It all looks right but there’s something missing. The girl’s face is composed in the right way, the muscle movements are right, and yet her eyes are completely devoid of the emotion. It strikes me that the test is somehow a little compromised as a result. A few months ago I did an interview for a news channel and the journalist interviewed an academic about Ekman’s work for the piece. The academic claimed that Ekman has been largely discredited and that it is generally accepted that the purpose of facial expressions is as communication. Therefore they don’t reflect the internal state of the subject. Which, just about anyone can tell you, is complete nonsense.

If something has evolved for a specific purpose, it doesn’t mean that it works on a conscious level. Walking, for example, is a learned trait, unlike facial expressions, and yet we don’t think about putting one foot infront of the other. We only think about expression when we want to use our body for communication on a conscious level. And a lot of the time we aren’t very good at faking internal states. If someone is playing a role in a social situation, it’s often expected of them, but much of the time we aren’t fooled by the performance. Which I think is one of the reasons why great actors are fascinating. A good performance is really a sort of willed self-delusion aided by research, observation and hard work.