August 14, 2000

Happiness = 12 + 6

face charted with underlying facial actions

Paul Ekman, a seminal figure in the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology, is one of the world’s leading experts on lying, having written or edited nearly two dozen books on the subject. Ekman’s central insight is that the human face betrays emotion in a universal language. Over the past thirty-plus years, Ekman has developed a system, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), that breaks down human expressions into forty-six distinct facial movements. Researchers have codified these movements into seven universal emotions: happiness, anger, fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, and surprise. According to Ekman, few people are capable of hiding these expressions. Try as we might, “micro expressions” slip through, revealing our true feelings.

Ekman’s research has many practical applications, most of which I can’t think of right now because I’m not in a very diabolical mood. But get this: scientists in Japan, in an attempt to boast flagging morale among assembly-line workers, have used Ekman’s FACS data to create a robot “co-worker” who, using a camera embedded in her left eye (yes, the robot is a she, complete with wig and dentures), observes her fellows and responds to their emotions with a “near-human expression of empathy.”

In case you’re wondering, the FACS code for happiness is 12+6. Sadness is 1+4+6+11.