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What is facial coding and how does it work?

The face and its movements as a means of effectively understanding the emotions and sensations we experience: the idea that our instinctive reactions, which are less mediated, are ”readable” on our faces, is nothing new, but it is only since the 1960s that the human face has been studied and observed, using specific instruments, to understand the real emotions that we experience behind our rational approach. This is how the FACS – Facial Action Coding System was created.

facial coding

What is FACS, or Facial Coding

It was Paul Ekman, a well-known professor of psychology at the University of California, who began studying facial expressions in the 1960s. Together with his colleague Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, he created a specific study, the “Wizards Project”.

The aim of the study was to observe the facial micro-expressions of different people, in order to establish whether they were communicating information that differed from what was expressed rationally by their facial muscles.

Ekman established that five emotions are translated through facial expressions and that they are universal, as they are shared by all cultures. These five universal emotions are joy, fear, anger, sadness and surprise. During their study, the two scientists observed that only a very small percentage of people were able to recognise these micro-expressions with the naked eye. This motivated them to develop the Facial Action Coding System in 1978.

How does the FACS Facial Action Coding System work?

The Facial Action Coding System is a manual that can be used to interpret facial micro-expressions and body movements to find their psychological equivalent. In previous articles, we have analysed various techniques, including eye tracking, to understand what affects people, what moves them.

The manual describes the upper movements of the face, continuing with the lower ones and defining every micro-expression as an Action Unit (AU), presenting them in groups that refer to their position or to the type of action involved. The manual can also be used to determine and interpret the duration, intensity and asymmetry or bilateral nature of the AU.

facial coding

This manual, updated and improved by Ekman and O’Sullivan in 2002, combined with tools to record and then analyse a person’s micro-expressions when exposed to an input, allows neuromarketing to help brands understand people’s unconscious reactions to certain types of advertising material.

Neuromarketing and Facial Coding

Neuromarketing uses software and powerful webcams to carry out facial coding research and studies to observe the automatic movement of people’s faces as they browse through an online catalogue, watch a video, smell perfumes or taste a product.

In general, as is true for almost all the tools used by neuromarketing, facial coding alone can only give partial results with regard to people’s real unconscious reaction. Consequently, given its concentration on the face, it is often combined with eye-tracking, which helps to observe a person’s eye movements when confronted with a stimulus.

facial coding