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Ekman's Six Basic Emotions: List, Definitions & Quiz

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Laura Jensen

In this lesson, we'll discuss Paul Ekman and how he discovered the six basic emotions universal across all cultures. You can view images and read descriptions of these emotions, and then you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching Introduction to Emotions and Categorizing Emotions

Who is Paul Ekman?

Psychologist Paul Ekman
Picture of Paul Ekman

After his mother developed a mental illness and committed suicide, psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman dedicated his life to psychotherapy and helping people with mental disorders. He first began his research in nonverbal communication in the 1950s, developing systematic ways to measure body language. In the process, he discovered that, through empirical research, he could consistently identify facial expressions created by the movement of muscles in the face. And so, Ekman extended his research to include facial expressions and their meanings.

The Six Basic Emotions

Before Ekman hit the scene, it was widely believed (by anthropologists including Margaret Mead) that facial expressions and the emotions they represent were determined by culture - that people learned to make and read facial expressions from their societies. Ekman set out to test this notion in 1968. He travelled to Papua New Guinea to study the facial expressions of the secluded Fore tribesmen, where he learned that they could consistently identify emotion in facial expressions by looking at photos of people from other cultures, even though the tribe had not been exposed to any outside cultures.

It became evident, then, that facial expressions are cross-cultural; his research revealed that there is a universal set of certain facial expressions used in both the Western and Eastern worlds. This list of universal facial expressions, which Ekman published in 1972, comprises the six basic emotions. Take at look at the list, as well as images, definitions and muscular movements of these emotions, below:

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