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

Page 5 of 5

Lessons Learned

I want to probe for a few minutes about lessons you've learned from your distinguished career in science and research. First of all, do you have a brief statement of your conclusions about humanity, as a result of all this work? Clearly, you believe people, when shown the truth, can learn things about themselves, change themselves and their interactions with other people. Anything else?

There's an enormous hunger in our country -- I can't really say of other countries; I suspect it's no different in any literate culture -- to try to improve emotional life. The emotion system wasn't designed, I don't believe, it didn't evolve for [self-]consciousness to play much of a role. It evolved in a period in our history on this planet when we spent our lifetime like these people in the Stone Age culture did. They lived in the same village from birth to death, the same 150 people. That's all they encountered. We live in an entirely different circumstances now. If you would ask a person in this Stone Age culture, "Can we go to the next village on Saturday?" they said, "How can I know today? Ask me on Saturday." I tried that when I came back. People would invite me to dinner ten days [in advance], and I'd say, "I'll let you know in ten days. How can I know today what I'm going to want to do in ten days?" You don't get away with that in our [culture].

We live life [as though] it's business. Even our social life is lived as business, for nearly everyone. There's a real cost to our emotional life. I think most people would like to be able to better understand why they're getting emotional and how to have their emotions be more constructive for themselves and others. The system didn't evolve for us to be able to do that very easily. It takes a lot of work. But it is achievable, if you want to spend the time.

I wrote two other books earlier that were trying to help people -- well, three. One on telling lies and understanding deception; another on why kids lie, to help parents deal with their child's lies, because every child's going to lie, and there are things they need to learn about that, because you don't want it to become a chronic pattern. But this book is the most explicit. Somebody said to me, "It's between the chairs," which is never a good place for a book to be, or prominently on a bookshelf. Mine is between the chairs, because it's not exactly a how-to, but it's not exactly a scientific treatise. It's somewhere in between. It's trying to give you the knowledge you need to bring about change in yourself.

One final question requiring a brief answer. What advice would you give to students about doing research? You've made clear to us that you went down this path that nobody else was on, and it was one that nobody seemed to want to go on, and the conventional wisdom was it wasn't worth going on. So it must have been a lonely journey, at least in the earlier phases.

It was. And that was wonderful, because I didn't have to deal with turf and people weren't threatened by my work. They just thought I was wasting my time. That's much better. In those days, NIH was interested in supporting high-risk research, so they gave me a chance, even though most people thought I was crazy. The clinicians, who used to be on the panel, knew it wasn't. These days, if I were starting my career over, I would fail. I couldn't do it. And that's rather disheartening to me, because high-risk research really isn't supported.

If I was starting all over, I would look at handwriting. Everybody thinks that's nuts. It's a personal product, and I'll bet you there are some things in it. Of course, there are people who think they can get a lot from handwriting. I would start by studying them and seeing, scientifically, whether it's really valid, and seeing whether I can unpack it. It would have the great benefit that if you succeed -- it's high-risk -- but if you succeed, then you're the pioneer that gets it all started.

Well, Dr. Ekman, on that positive note, pointing our students to future directions in their own work, I want to thank you for being with us here, talking about your book, Emotions Revealed, which I will show to the television audience, and thank you very much.

My pleasure; nice to talk to you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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