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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Implications of Research

Can read my real intentions as I interview you?

I can read your real emotions. Now, the tricky thing, and this is the major thing I have [students in] law enforcement and the counterterrorism come away with, is that emotions don't tell you their source. If I thought you were angry, I wouldn't know whether you were angry at me for talking too much, or whether you were feeling angry at yourself that you hadn't got far enough in your screening, or you were remembering a fight you had with your wife last night. All I know is that the emotion is occurring. It's up to me to find out why. I have to ask a question.

Now, since I'm taking that information, I want to do it with some delicacy. So if I saw you looking angry for a moment, instead of saying, "Why are you getting angry?" (which is always a bad response; if you're in the midst of an argument with your spouse, to say "Why are you getting angry?" is to challenge their right to be angry, and you're just going to get more of it) I might say, "Is there something else going on that maybe I should know about? Is there something that's bothering you? Anything I need to know?" Because it's up to you as to what you want to share with me. It's not my prerogative, but if I acknowledge it ...

That's so for the nurse working with patients. For many people in the medical setting, it's really important to know how their patient is feeling, because the emotions about the illness -- the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment, the fear -- cause patients to take longer to improve, or to not comply with instructions. So it's very important to know how to [read emotions]. A medical situation, I believe, is one of the occasions in which you have the right to invade privacy. If a doctor or a nurse can look at you naked and enter your body orifices, then they can surely say, "I sense that you're afraid right now, and it's important that I know what you're afraid of." You can go right to the heart of it, and you should. You have to learn how to see it. But once you see it, a doctor-patient, nurse-patient situation, you have those rights. Even in the family, you may not have those same rights. In a criminal interrogation, that may not be the right way to handle the information.

But the emotion doesn't tell you its source. Otherwise, you'll make "Othello's error." Othello killed Desdemona because he thought that her signs of fear were of a woman caught in a betrayal. She was afraid of being disbelieved. The fear of being disbelieved looked just like the fear of being caught. Fear is fear. You have to find out which it is. That's a little disappointing, because people would like to think, "Oh, if you look afraid, that means you did it." No, it doesn't mean that; it means you're afraid.

A question that comes to mind, because what you're saying -- let me try to summarize it for the audience -- is that the face is an important element of the emotional system. Its expressions manifest emotions, and we can learn about ourselves and other people through understanding the face.

When I was preparing for this interview, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the Bible: "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as through a glass darkly, but then face-to-face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known." I raise that not to get on a side-track, but [to emphasize] that understanding can be found in face-to-face interactions.

Going back to Freud, it seems when you discovered the face, you were opening a world that somehow we were obscuring. Why were we doing that? Was it civilization? Have we evolved to where we cover up, we deceive, and we don't want to look at the things that you're drawing our attention to?

The simple answer is yes. Of course, that's less so in children, although by seven or eight, you start to see a lot of concealment efforts and a lot of fabrication. That's my other area (it's a related area, it's in application) which is looking at demeanor: face, body, voice, and speech -- not just the face, when people are deliberately attempting to mislead each other. Now, that goes on in much of social life for politeness. You know, you tell the host that it was a wonderful evening, even though the conversation was dull and the food was worse, but you're being polite. You thank your aunt for the tie, even if you're going to throw it away. That's politeness. I don't consider those lies. They are a form a deception, but not lies; the stakes are usually quite low. I've been interested in high-stake lies. I started with the lie of the suicidal patient trying to get free of the hospital to take their life, and now I've worked on criminal, terrorist, political, all kinds of high-stake lies.

But more generally, [if you] weed out those extreme cases, most of us, most people who have finished high school, let alone those who have gone to college, pay an awful lot of attention to words. Encoding words in a coherent fashion and decoding them is a tough task. It's not the easiest task in the world, and it takes most of our attention, and we tend to miss much of the information that's in the face. We have actually good evidence on that. It seems to be so across literate cultures, although that's not as well established as it could be.

The second thing is that most of us learn these display rules, and so even unwittingly we're managing our expressions. I remember a novel I read in junior high, I think it was called The Virginian: "Take that smile off your face," was the key line, "or I'm going to shoot you." Or: "Don't look that way at your father." You're taught not to look angry at your parent; you can't do that. At least, you used to be taught you can't do that.

So we develop habits of managing expression that result in quite a lot of concealment and fabrication. Now, what we have found is that the concealments can be spotted, but most people need to learn it. I've developed a CD that to my great surprise teaches people to spot them in less than an hour's time. But without that most people ... almost everyone, including police and FBI, miss them.

Is this the "micro expression"?

These are micro expressions. Two things happen when we conceal strong emotion: One is it can be reduced in time, so it becomes micro, like a 25th of a second, and most people just won't see them, but you can learn to see them. The other is they become very tiny, so those are the subtle expressions. But that can be learned ... there's another CD on that.

What is harder to spot is fabricated expressions. If I put on enjoyment, there is a telltale clue, but very subtle. Most people don't know what it is. I could tell you now, but it might ruin your life, because then you would know whether the people were really enjoying themselves. You should pause now -- it's like some of these Internet things -- "Do you really want to learn this?" Maybe your audience doesn't want to know this, because then you will know whether or not your spouse if really pleased. Is that worth knowing or worth not knowing?

There was a professor, a quite famous sociologist who died fairly young, who used to be at this university, Irving Goffman. Irving's claim was that what matters is what the person wants you to think, not how they really feel. Well, that's so in many situations, but not all. There are situations where you really want to know how they feel and whether that's true or false. And so I could tell you what to look for. It wouldn't really ruin your life, because you would probably need a little practice.

Part of the issue on learning some of these things is that there's a difference between knowledge and skill. If you read a book on how to play tennis, you have all the knowledge, and you can follow the game. Of course, you can't get the ball over the net, that's the skill you need to develop. The skill is worthless if you don't have the knowledge about when you're supposed to get the ball where. So you need both. I can give you the knowledge, but then you would need the coaching.

So give it to me.

There are two muscles principally involved, the zygomaticus major, which pulls the corners up, which in our system is "Action Unit 12." And then, this is one that's very hard to do voluntarily, and Duchenne correctly said that "its absence unmasks the false friend." (Incidentally, Duchenne's book has now been translated and available in English. I love to tell my French colleagues, "Well, you can read it in English; it's not available in French." That was a really a good dig.)

There's a muscle called orbicularis oculi pars lateralis, and you can see why I've just given it "Number 6." I mean, you can't deal with these things with their Latin names. But it's only the outer part of this muscle, and what it does is it pulls up the cheek and pulls down this skin. Now, the cheek does get pushed up just by zygomatic, so it's worthless as a clue. What you have to look at is what is called the eye cover fold -- this area right here, and it lowers very slightly to adjoin it.

Now, from a Darwinian point of view, if it had been important for our species to know when people were truly enjoying themselves, then a more obvious sign would have evolved. It's clearly not had survival value. So it's hard to recognize. We can teach people to do it, but it's not easy to spot. Much of the time, you won't know. Most people just don't know. What they know is that somebody looks like they're feeling good. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't.

One of the things that seems to come out of what you're saying is that as human beings living in modern society, there's a limit to the information that we can take in.

Well, you can be trained. What you've actually gone through is a process of being trained not to -- both by your parents, who didn't want you to see things; by your teachers in grammar school, often quite authoritarian; and then by your college training, which emphasized articulation to the cost of everything else. Now, all of us are as good [at articulation] as we're ever going to be, and we could afford to widen our [scope] to pay more attention to the face and the voice.

It's a dual system. The voice is every bit as important as the face. I haven't worked on it. Our knowledge of the voice is about where our knowledge of the face was thirty years ago -- maybe a little better; not much better. There aren't training tools for the voice as there are now for the face. But the voice captures your attention when you're out of the room. Think of the poor caregiver. Think of the mother. She would have to be looking at her infant all the time. She doesn't, because if the infant is in trouble, it will cry and she'll hear it. However, you can just simply shut up and then [other people] don't know anything. There's no equivalent to shutting up, facially. The face is always there, always available. It's silent. You have to be looking, but it's always there.

Next Page: Consulting on the Face

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