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Ekman was born in 1934 in Washington, DC, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey], Washington, Oregon, and Southern California. He is the son of a pediatrician.
Ekman's carefully conducted experiments were a model of elegance for other psychologists and, in part, led to him being designated one of the 100 most important psychologists of the twentieth century by the American Psychological Association.
Contrary to the belief of some anthropologists at the time including Margaret Mead, Ekman found that at least some facial expressions and their corresponding emotions are not culturally determined, but universal to human culture and thus biological in origin, as Charles Darwin had once theorized. Ekman's finding is now widely accepted by scientists. Expressions he found to be universal included anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. Findings on contempt are less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence for its being universally recognized.
Ekman reported facial "microexpressions" that he showed could be used to reliably detect lying, in an effort called the Diogenes Project. He also developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to taxonomize every conceivable human facial expression.
Ekman conducted and published research on a broad variety of topics in the general area of non-verbal behavior. His work on lying, for example, was not limited to the face, but also to observation of the rest of the body.
- Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1969) The repertoire of non-verbal behaviour: categories, origins, usage and coding, Semiotica 1: 49-98.
- Ekman, P., Levenson, R.W. and Frieson, W.V. (1983) Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions, Science 221: 1208-10.
- Ekman, P., Sorenson, E.R. and Friesen, W.V. (1969) Pan cultural elements in facial displays of emotions, Science 164: 86-8.
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