Paul Ekman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Face to Face: The Science of Reading Faces: Conversation with Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology, University of California Medical School, San Francisco, January 14, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Dr. Ekman, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Washington, D.C., but I never lived there. My mother went there just for the delivery, which they knew was going to be difficult. I was always told that I was difficult from the time of birth. I was raised the first eight years in Newark, New Jersey. I was a contemporary of Philip Roth, although I never met him. He was a year behind me. So that community that he writes about is what I grew up in, up until World War II. Then my father joined the army. He was a pediatrician, so they made him head of malaria treatment. I spent most of the war period in Washington, Oregon, and then the last three years in Southern California.

In looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

It's interesting; I was just thinking about that. They took me to see Porgy and Bess in New York when it first opened. I can remember now how upset I was that it had such an unhappy ending. Why couldn't it have a nice ending? I must have been four or five. But they did give me a lot of cultural input. I remember lying on the living room floor when I was seven, and listening to all the Tchaikovsky 78s -- 78s were so wonderful; they were heavy, you know.

We're talking about records here. We have to say that ...

Yes. Oh, that's right. You could put them on either one-by-one or in a stack, and one would play and another would drop. I really loved 78s.

My father loved to work. He was a student all his life. My main positive memory of him is sitting at the kitchen table late in the evening, reading the latest medical journals. I think the best thing I inherited from him was that passion for work.

Originally, you were interested in nonverbal communication.


And then you moved to hands and then to the face. What drew you into the world of psychology?

I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I went there when I was fifteen, in the days when they would take you after two years of high school. I actually had been thrown out of high school for talking back to teachers. So it was just a question of whether I was going to be a juvenile delinquent or go to college, and fortunately there was a place that would take you.

So you started looking at faces then?

Yes, that's right. I read Freud's New Introductory Lectures in a humanities course on rhetoric, and studied it as rhetoric. It's actually spectacular rhetoric. A wonderful writing style in which he anticipates perfectly every question that will come to your mind just about when it will come to your mind. So I got very interested in Freud. At the University of Chicago in those days, you had to have some area that you specialized in. Susan Sontag was my classmate, [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May. I mean, it was an extraordinary [pool of] talent ...

All students at that time ....

I became the Freud scholar, I read everything that Freud wrote. I could quote Freud on any topic you might mention. It must have been pretty obnoxious, but it led me into an interest in psychotherapy. I originally wanted to be a psychotherapist and trained to be a psychotherapist. In observing psychotherapy sessions, I was impressed that there was more than the words going on. So I thought for my research, which I had to do for my Ph.D., I would look at what people did with their face and body. Little did I realize that that would then occupy my whole life, and I'd never got back to psychotherapy.

But there's another aspect of it. I had a commitment to trying to do good in the world. It's not something that people talk about too much; medical students talk about it. Most medical students, particularly these days, are in it not to make money. It's a terrible field if you want to make money. Get an MBA, don't go into medicine. But they want to help people. So I thought psychotherapy was the way to solve the world's problems. I really did believe that. Of course, I no longer believe that.

A lot of people did.

A lot of people did in the fifties.

I was drafted into the army in '58, when I got my Ph.D. I had a choice to either hang on in graduate school for a few more years or get drafted. I [became] chief psychologist at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I thought: it's peacetime, the draft can't be worse than graduate school, and there were no opportunities to do psychotherapy [there], because it would go on [a soldier's] records; nobody would come to you. But I had 40,000 men coming through every eight weeks, an unbelievable number of people.

I got my first grant from the Surgeon General, and I did research that changed how the army responded to different kinds of problems. For example, they had the belief that you couldn't evaluate someone in the stockade (where most people went for crimes that don't exist in civilian life, like AWOL), until they'd been in for two weeks. So a lot of really psychotic people were in this jail for two weeks before anybody got a look at them. I did a study that showed that evaluations are just as accurate if you did them within 48 hours. So they changed it. I did a study that showed you had much less recidivism if you didn't put people in the stockade for their first AWOL, but gave them company punishment. There was a 70 percent difference. So from there on ... Well, the reason I'm mentioning this is because I thought, "Oh my God, the way to change the world is research." You could really have an impact.

Well, it took about thirty years before my research started to have any kind of impact. The army was fast, because I was working on easy problems and it's a closed community. The problems I've worked on since took a lot longer, they were much tougher. It's only this year, after being in a psychiatry department for more than forty years, that they're starting to use my work in the training of those young psychiatrists. It's so hard. Nothing's more rigid than a medical school curriculum.

All curriculums.

Well, maybe. I've spent my whole life in medical school, so I'd like to believe that it's worse there. Maybe it isn't, but it's very hard to get new things in. I've done a lot of teaching in the last seven years with law enforcement. The FBI is just about as bad as medical school, in that if you have something new, that means you have to take out something old, and that affects somebody's piece of territory, because everybody owns a piece of the curriculum. Agencies like CIA and ATF are much more flexible. I don't know why; much more flexible.

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