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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Consulting on the Face

You're in the unique position of being an advisor and a consultant to both the Dalai Lama and parts of the Defense Department, the Pentagon. The question arises then, what do you study? The research that you've done is useful for different organizations and people, for different reasons. I would assume that the Dalai Lama is interested in helping people understand themselves and others, while, especially in the present environment, the Pentagon is looking for telltale signs of individuals who in particular circumstances might be a threat to the United States. Talk a little about that.

Actually, there's more overlap than it might seem. At least, I'd like to think there is. I've had the opportunity now to meet with the Dalai Lama three times, and I consider it, like my New Guinea trip, to have been one of the turning points in my life. Such a unique privilege to have contact with this really unusual man, very unusual. And this is all in the last four years, so it's very late in my career. But it raised questions that I had not focused on. Buddhist thinking, and the Dalai Lama himself as a person, what he's like, raised questions that I hadn't fully considered, and it caused me to rewrite the first half of my book after my first five days of talking with him.

What he asked me to do was to organize research -- hard, objective research -- on the impact of meditative practices on emotional life, which I've done. I raised the money for it, and now a colleague, Professor Margaret Kemeny, is leading that project. We already did the pilot study. What he wanted -- he specifically said, "Use a secular version. Don't teach Buddhism; teach meditation." There's a secular version, and we've combined the secular version of meditation with some of the exercises in my book, which really come from the West, but there's a lot of nice overlap between the two.

So that's a concern with helping people lead a better life. And it's a concern with goodness.

My work with the Department of Defense; they're, of course, interested in being able to identify people who are a threat to the country, but not misidentifying people. A major error that I find that occurs is the misidentification of truthful people who are under suspicion. So I'm helping them find the truth. Most often that means saying, "No, he's not worried." Sometimes saying, "This is a person we need to get more information about." And that's a crucial division.

I've been teaching police for almost twenty years, and I'm now co-directing an organization that combines academics and experienced policemen to teach law enforcement and other federal officials. My university colleagues say, "Why do you want to help the police?" And I say, "Well, were you pleased to hear about all the people on death row [who were exonerated when] DNA showed they didn't do their crime? Do you want more innocent people to be executed? Wouldn't you like [the police] to do a better job?" How can you not want to help the police? You know, all of our lives, our whole commitment to a justice system, where we would rather let the guilty go free than to imprison the innocent, that's what you need to work on. That's what I'm helping them do, make better, more careful evaluations.

So I feel, on both of these, these are both my goodness activities. They are out of the same motive that led me to want to be a psychotherapist, to try to bring about change in the world that would help people. I'm doing it in these two very different paths, not only with the same knowledge bank but with the same goals in mind.

I do not teach people how to be better liars. So if the Defense Department asks me -- and they never have -- but if they were to ask me, "Can you train our undercover agents to be more misleading?" I wouldn't do it. I was asked in a previous administration, I won't say which, to train the president how to better mislead his adversaries in summit meetings. I wouldn't do that. I work in England, in Israel, in Canada, and Australia, but I will not train in non - constitutional democracies. And I have been asked many times to do that.

I got asked at one point if I would train Gorbachev's equivalent to the Secret Service. I said, "Come back after you've had a constitutional democracy for a decade." I wouldn't have wanted to train the people who protected Hitler. So I'll only do this work in an area where I think it's going to be used more for the good than for the bad.

The results of what you discovered can be taught and developed into skills, but some people do this naturally, have a natural gift. Is that correct?

Yes, we currently call those people the "Wizards of Deception Detection from Demeanor" -- three Ds. We have tested 12,000 people. We have a videotape test. And we've identified twenty of them. Not many. But they're spectacular.

What is the explanation for this?

We don't know why they're so good. Twenty is not a very big sample. I just proposed to the Defense Department that we should test a quarter-of-a-million people. It only takes an hour of their time. If we tested a quarter-of-a-million, we might have had 2,000 of these people, and they could be used as interview consultants brought in on the most serious cases. Because they're uncanny. I can describe what they do. They don't miss anything. Everything, every aspect of your speech, every aspect of your mannerisms, what you're doing with your hands, how you're moving your body. There's nothing that they aren't dealing with, and they're continuing to generate hypotheses as they go along.

The group that's yielded the largest number of these are arbitrators. I think that's because an arbitrator has to see both sides. They have to find where there's a common ground. Ninety percent of arbitrators are terrible; they're just as bad as psychiatrists or FBI. But there's about 8 percent [who are very good], and that's a very high yield, the highest yield we've found for any group, other than the Secret Service, which is quite high, too.

In addition to arbitrators, are there other professions that have high numbers of people?

Secret Service, that's the only other group.

That's the only other one. Are there certain professions that make people a little better on the scale?

No, we've tested everybody from customs officials, to embassy officials, to FBI, CIA, DEA, judges, trial lawyers, policemen -- they're all a chance. I mean, really, they could just as well flip a coin.

So we can't live with the expectation that politicians, for example, are better at lying?

Oh, I haven't tested any politicians, so I don't know. Of course, politicians are a tricky matter, because you get involved in partisan issues, and I try to stay out of partisan politics. I was asked once by one of the political parties to do a personality assessment of a candidate for a major office -- I won't say how major -- in order to identify where were the weak points that might cause the person to act explosively in public. I thought seriously about it, because the candidate was someone from a representative political viewpoint that I strongly disagreed with. I said, "No, I can't use my knowledge to try to harm people." Maybe I made a mistake, but my commitment is, it has to be used to try to help, not to harm.

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