Can You Read Emotions From Faces?

We mentioned previously that some researchers—the psychologist

Paul Ekman is the best known—have studied

whether facial expressions reveal true emotions. These

researchers have distinguished real smiles ( so-called

Duchenne smiles, named after French physician Guillaume

Duchenne) from “fake” smiles. Duchenne found genuine

smiles raised not only the corners of the mouth (easily

faked) but also cheek and eye muscles (much more difficult

to fake). So, one way to determine whether someone

is genuinely happy or amused is to look at the muscles

around the upper cheeks and eyes—if the person’s eyes are

smiling or twinkling, the smile is genuine. Ekman and his

associates have developed similar methods to detect other

emotions, such as anger, disgust, and distress. According to

Ekman, the key to identifying real emotions is to focus on

micro-expressions, or those facial muscles we cannot easily


Dan Hill has used these techniques to study the facial

expressions of CEOs and found they vary dramatically

not only in their Duchenne smiles but also in the

degree to which they display positive versus negative facial

expressions. The accompanying table shows Hill’s

analysis of the facial expressions of some prominent male


Jeff Bezos, Amazon 51% positive

Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway 69% positive

Michael Dell, Dell Computers 47% positive

Larry Ellison, Oracle 0% positive

Bill Gates, Microsoft 73% positive

Steve Jobs, Apple 48% positive

Phil Knight, Nike 67% positive

Donald Trump,

The Trump Organization

16% positive

It’s interesting to note that these individuals, all of whom are

successful in various ways, have such different levels of positive

facial expressions. It also raises the question: is a smile

from Larry Ellison worth more than a smile from Bill Gates?


1.  Most research suggests we are not very good at detecting

fake emotions, and we think we’re much better at

it than we are. Do you believe training would improve

your ability to detect emotional displays in others?

2.  Do you think the information in this case could help

you tell whether someone’s smile is genuine?

3.  Is your own impression of the facial expressions of

the eight business leaders consistent with what the

researcher found? If not, why do you think your views

might be at odds with his?

4.  One research study found people’s ratings of the

positive affect displayed in CEO’s faces had very little

correlation to their company’s profits. Does that suggest

to you that Hill’s analysis is immaterial?

5.  Assuming you could become better at detecting the

real emotions in facial expressions, do you think it

would help your career? Why or why not?


Sources: Based on P. Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (New York:

W. W. Norton & Co., 2009); D. Jones, “It’s Written All Over Their Faces,” USA Today (February 25, 2008),

pp. 1B–2B; and N. O. Rule and N. Ambady, “The Face of Success,” Psychological Science 19, no. 2 (2008),

pp. 109–111.

Photo by Louisa Swz