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An Interview with Paul Ekman, Ph.D. on Emotional Expression

David Van Nuys, Ph.D., edited by David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 19th 2009

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Paul Ekman, Ph.D.In this edition of the Wise Counsel Podcast, Dr. Van Nuys interviews Paul ekman, Ph.D. on Emotional Expression.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show we'll be talking with internationally renowned psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, who's been a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. He's considered one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century and is the author of many books and papers and the recipient of numerous awards. Background of Dr. Ekman's research analyzes the development of human traits and states over time. Interestingly, the character Cal Lightman of the television series Lie to Me is loosely based on Dr. Ekman and his work.

Now, here's the interview.

Dr. Paul Ekman, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Paul Ekman: Thank you very much.

David: You're one of the most prominent psychologists on the planet and have been widely interviewed, so I'm especially pleased to have this opportunity, and I'm hoping we can break some new ground. So please feel free to take this interview into any areas that are on the edge of your own excitement, because you've probably been interviewed so much that you're probably sick of it.

Paul Ekman: Well, almost. It really depends on the questions that are asked.

David: Okay, well, I hope I do a good job. And that having been said, we should probably begin with at least something of a recap of your work on emotion and how emotions are expressed in the human face. What got you interested in emotion in the first place?

Paul Ekman: There are so many different answers to that, I don't know which one is the correct one. One answer is that originally I started out interested in becoming a psychotherapist, and it seems that most of the psychotherapies of that time, and the research on psychotherapy, only dealt with words. They didn't really directly deal with emotion, and even psychoanalytic approaches had a very simple view of what the emotions are. And another answer is it was something that was being totally ignored in academic research, especially facial expression. But there wasn't a chapter on emotion in any introductory textbook 50 years ago. Now there is. So it was uncharted, it was ignored, and it seemed to me, both as being a patient in psychoanalysis and being a novice psychotherapist, that it was very important to deal with.

David: Well, those are both very interesting answers, and since my own training was as a psychotherapist and also in a very psychoanalytic program, those are both really of interest. Now, how did that interest in emotion transition into your later interest in facial expressions?

Paul Ekman: Well, the face is a primary signal system for emotion; the voice is a secondary system. The face is always active but the voice only when you talk. But these are the ways in which we signal emotions to others and that show involuntary changes, so if you want to do research on emotion, the face is the key. The problem was that when I started out in this research there was no tool for measuring facial movement. There was no way to know how many different expressions a human being can make, how many of them are relevant to emotion. There wasn't a way to establish for certain that two people were showing exactly the same emotional expression. So everything remained to be done, but it took me eight years to develop a tool for measuring the face - I never thought it would take that long.

David: I'll bet.

Paul Ekman: But that tool now is not only used by me, but it's used by hundreds of scientists around the world and by animators and advertisers and portrait painters. Anyone who wants to be able… it's like the equivalent of musical notation for music. This is the notation for facial movement.

David: And it's one of those things that in retrospect seems so obvious, but as you say, at the time it just didn't exist before you brought it into being. And we have this expression "it's as plain as the nose on your face," the idea that emotion is expressed through the face, and yet there was nothing done about it until you came along.

Paul Ekman: Well, I can't say nothing, because really, the pioneer, the founder in my view not only of research on emotion and expression but the first book in psychology, in Western psychology, is Darwin's The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, published in 1872. And it was a bestseller in its time, but it became completely neglected for multiple reasons. And I knew of Darwin's work, but I hadn't bothered to read it until I started my cross-cultural work and found, much to my surprise, evidence for universality, which is what Darwin had predicted - not for cultural differences, which is what Margaret Mead and the cultural anthropologists had - I wouldn't say they predicted - they asserted. And it was widely accepted, by me as well.

So I stand on the shoulders of, probably, three men would be the most accurate way to say it. Darwin is one of them; the 70% of what we know about certainly the face is in Darwin's book. He just didn't have the evidence for it. And 30% was bit off. In the Journal of the Association of Psychological Science, I think next month, there will be an article I wrote on Darwin's contributions to the study of emotion in this 200th anniversary of his birth.

The second man whose shoulders I stand on is Duchenne du Boulogne, a French neurologist that published in 1862 the first use of photography in science to study facial movement. And Duchenne's interests in the face were much more narrow but extremely useful in terms of doing a functional anatomy of the face. That is, up until Duchenne - and after him, because he was also widely ignored - we only knew what the muscles were by taking the skin off a cadaver's face. But we didn't know which ones are capable of independent action because they have separate neural supplies. That's a functional analysis. Duchenne started it. He got about 20% of the way there and Friesen, my co-worker, and I did the other 80% and developed this facial action coding system, this tool.

And the third person whose shoulders I stand on - I'm now thinking about whether these guys are getting tired of having me stand on their shoulders. But, actually, they're all dead and I think metaphorically they'd all be pleased that their work didn't die with them on this topic, that someone continued it. Silvan Tompkins, who was a well-known psychologist in the 1950s and 1960s - I met him in early '60s - and it was Silvan who convinced me, by showing me what he could get by looking at someone's face, that I should tackle this terrible problem that had defeated so many people. Because there are at least a half dozen famous psychologists who became famous for something else and failed in their attempts to get anywhere studying the face. So I knew it was a risky move, but at that point in my life - my wife would say it's still the case - I like risks. They appeal to me, and so I embarked on it.

David: Yeah, boy, what a fascinating history. Now, I believe that you found that there are about 17 or so basic positive and negative emotions that are expressed facially and that hold up cross-culturally. Do I have that right?

Paul Ekman: It's almost right. I'm not sure the exact number; it's close to that. And there are seven emotions for which we have the evidence of universality, and that is for anger, fear, disgust, contempt, sadness, surprise and overall happiness. Now, those have a universal expression in the face. That's pretty well established now, as established as anything ever is in science. And I should offer a reward for anyone who could find an eighth universal facial expression of emotion, but I don't think anybody would want to look; it's very unlikely there is one.

But then, we have a number of enjoyable emotions that have not a facial signal, but a vocal signal. So just to take one example: it feels good - you're happy when you're relieved, and you're happy when you're amused, but everyone can recall those sound entirely different. They look the same on the face. The timing's a little different, but the muscles that move are the same. It's the voice that carries the signal and distinguishes I've claimed as many as 12 emotions. But the evidence for universality of those vocal signals so far is for only two or three of them: amusement, relief, and sensory tactile pleasure. Those three have a universal vocal signal. We don't yet know whether the others that I've proposed have a universal vocal signal.

David: Okay. Now, how did you become interested in the detection of lying and deception?

Paul Ekman: It wasn't my idea, any more than the idea to study the face was mine, and that was Silvan who said - because I was focused on gesture and posture - he said, "You're missing the richest source. It's the face." And the idea to study it cross-culturally was not mine either. It was a program manager at one of the federal agencies, who was married to a woman from another culture. They were having trouble, and he thought it was because of miscommunication, and he wanted me to go and try and settle the matter.

And then the issue of deception: I was teaching a group of young psychiatrists about how to better diagnose different forms of mental illness by considering expression and gesture, and they said, "Yeah, but the problem we really need help with is how to tell when a patient who's been admitted because of a serious suicidal attempt is lying or being truthful when they say, 'I'm feeling much better, doctor. Give me a pass for the weekend to be with my family.' And we know that some of those patients are deliberately lying to get free of the hospital supervision and take their life." It took me about 25 years to come up with an answer that's practically useful. So it was their idea, not mine, to study deception.

David: And how did you get into microexpressions? That's pretty closely related, right?

Paul Ekman: It is. Well, the very first thing I did after I got that request was to start going through a film I had - notice I say film, not video. This was, maybe, 1966, over 40 years ago. I have been filming every patient that came into the hospital for a 12-minute sound interview, and I got told by somebody on one of the wards that a patient had admitted that, during the interview, she had been deliberately lying when she said she felt much better. So I went through that film in real time a couple of times, saw no sign of it; she looked very cheerful. And I decided I would go through in slow motion. And in slow motion, I saw the first microexpression I ever saw, and it was of anguish. And then I saw a couple more. So that's how that discovery happened.

David: That's really interesting. So as a result of all of this research that you've done over the years, what have you learned about lying and deception? I'm sure that's a big question.

Paul Ekman: It's a very big question. I have two books about it. One is called Telling Lies. That's never gone out of print since first published in 1985. The fourth edition, which has some new material in it, just came out this year. And I have a book that's been out of print forever called Why Kids Lie. Maybe we don't care as much about kids as we do about adults.

My focus first was to try to distinguish lies from other forms of deceit, and there are two criteria. One is it has to be a deliberate choice to mislead. I can give you a lot of false information, but it isn't a lie unless I know I'm giving you false information and I deliberately want to mislead you. So if the stockbroker - which I don't have, but if I had one - gave me bad advice and I lost money, he's not lying unless he knew he was giving me bad advice, in which case he could be prosecuted.

So that's the first criteria: deliberate choice. And the second is there's no notification; this week's New Yorker has a joke in which one man says to another, "I'm not going to lie to you, and that's a lie."

David: Yes, I saw that one.

Paul Ekman: And in some spheres of life, like selling your house, there is notification: nobody has to believe that the selling price is the asking price. So you can't lie. You try to mislead the person, so it's deceptive, but there's no notification. In a witness's testimony, they are told they are to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and if they don't and they can be proven, that's perjury. In poker, you can't win if you don't bluff, but nobody says to the bluffer, "Oh, you lied," because you're notified ahead of time. It is deceptive.

There are some creatures on this earth that can never tell the truth: a praying mantis has no choice but to look like a leaf, so it is continuously lying. But we humans have a choice as to whether to be truthful or to lie, and we can make that choice deliberately, and we can do it in contexts where there's no expectation that we will do so. And if we get caught in those circumstances, there's often a considerable loss of reputation.

A second cut is whether it's a serious lie. By serious I mean that, if caught, you would lose your freedom, your life, your income, your job, your relationship, your reputation. These are the lies that society cares about; those are the lies like the suicidal patient; and those are the lies that I've spent my life studying. And what I have discovered is that it's possible, by close examination of face, body, voice and speech, to be able to identify such serious lies with about 95% accuracy. And it's possible to teach people, to teach others, how to recognize those lies if they really want to find out.

Now, of course, most lies succeed because the target of the lie doesn't want to know the truth. Do you want to know that your children are using hard drugs? Do you want to know that your spouse is unfaithful with your best friend? Do you want to find out that the employee you hired is embezzling from the company? Those are all very unpleasant truths, and it's a cliché that the last person to know they're being cuckolded is the person being cuckolded, and that's only because they didn't want to know the truth - the truth can be painful. But there are circumstances where to be misled has a much higher cost, and there are people who society gives the job of the judge, the jury, the law enforcement officer, the counter-terrorist, of finding the truth.

David: Okay, this stimulates a couple of questions. One is what about the psychopath? Do they show the microexpressions that would betray a lie, or are they, in fact, so lacking in conscience that they don't do that?

Paul Ekman: Well, of course, what betrays most lies is the arousal of emotion, and unless there is a serious threat of punishment - as there is in all the lies I study - you don't get emotions aroused. And the three most common emotions are the fear of being caught - of course, the psychopath can be afraid of being caught because that will harm him. The delight - what I call "duping delight" - in being able to control and manipulate someone - psychopaths are extremely vulnerable to that emotion and that often betrays them. And the third, which they don't have, is guilt about engaging in deception. So it's only one of three emotions that doesn't occur in the psychopath. The others are there so there's no lack of microexpression.

David: Okay, and then you mentioned that you can train people to recognize these microexpressions. What about the other way around? Can you or have you trained people to suppress the microexpressions in order to become more effective liars?

Paul Ekman: Well, I run a school for lie catchers, but not a school for liars, so I've never worked that side of the street, although I've been asked by a number of people from various walks of life, including presidential candidates, to teach them how to "be more credible" is the way they put it. But I've never tried. I have, however, proposed to our government that they ought to give me the financial support to find out whether that training would succeed because if it would, it would mean that when dealing with terrorists or spies from a country that could invest in preparation - as the Soviet Union once did, and as I suspect China now does - whether it can work. Can you beat this system? We don't know the answer to that.

David: Yeah, that was precisely the concern that was behind my question. I was wondering if, in fact, this science could be used against us, as other things that we've invented and created sometimes are used in ways that were not intended or anticipated. Not long ago I discovered a TV show called Lie to Me, and I immediately realized it had to be based on you and your work. Are you a technical consultant on that show?

Paul Ekman: It's referred to as scientific advisor, and I have a contract with Twentieth Century Fox that obligates to review critically every draft of each script and tell them where they've gone off base or suggest other possibilities. They take my advice about 80% of the time. I also, occasionally, will make video examples of some of the more difficult things and send that to them for the actors to study. And I also write a commentary called "The Truth About Lie to Me," separating the science from the fiction, and that appears on Fox's website,, a day after each program. And some of the entertainment columnists have pointed out that this the first time that a television network has ever published on its own website criticisms of what it's doing. But I feel that's very important, and the producers of the show feel it's important as well. And if they start doing something that's too outrageous - I only did this once in the last season - I say to them, "If someday some innocent person gets convicted because a juror saw this on your show and believed that that innocent person is guilty, that's on your conscience because I've warned you it's wrong. Don't put it in." Now, that's what now in Congress is referred to as the "nuclear option."

David: Did they listen to you?

Paul Ekman: They do. If I did that every week, I couldn't get away with it, but they want… I mean, they're a dramatic television program, and if they don't get good ratings, they go out of business, and they don't want to go out of business. But they want it to be as close to the science as possible. However, my contract also reads that the character Dr. Lightman, played by Tim Roth, cannot resemble me personally in any way - in age, shape, nationality, marital status, personality. He has to be different.

David: Interesting.

Paul Ekman: And he is. And I've also ruled off limits my work for the last 10 years with the Dalai Lama. They can't use that at all in any program.

David: Oh, that's good. Well, it's a testimony to you and to them that, without knowing it, I was immediately able to recognize your work in the show. So it's really succeeded.

Paul Ekman: Yes. And the DVD - this is to give them a little promo - the DVD of the first season just went on sale this week, and the new season begins September 28.

David: Hey, how does it feel to you to be a star, in a sense, to have your work highlighted in this way?

Paul Ekman: Well, I try to keep my personal privacy, as I described. And to get the work into the knowledge of the public, I'm glad about that. The NIMH supported me for 43 years - that's the taxpayer. And I'm giving it back in terms of entertainment, but I'm also giving it back in terms of most of what I've done for the last five years is to train law enforcement - federal, state and municipal. So I believe I have learned some things that are relevant to law enforcement and counter-terror and to just improving emotional life in general. And I feel an obligation at this point in my life to… I've stopped doing the basic research, and I'm doing the translational work to make it available to others.

And if anybody wants to learn how to read microexpressions, I have a tool on the Internet that, in the cost of a DVD rental - not much more - anybody can learn how to spot concealed emotions. However, you may not always like what you see, and once you learn it, you can't turn it off. You're now going to see what other people don't want you to know about how they feel. That can be very useful; we have evidence it's very useful for the salesperson, for the doctor, for the nurse, for the law enforcement person. I'm not so sure it's so useful in family life - your in-laws.

I was just talking to a lawyer today; you know, the Miranda says you have the right to silence. If you're a criminal suspect, you don't have to say a word. Well, do you have the right to turn your back on the person who's questioning you? Because otherwise they're going to get information out of you that you don't want to give them from your involuntary expressions.

David: Yes, and of course then there's the whole issue of DNA and so-on. It's really getting harder and harder to withhold information about ourselves. Now, you mentioned law enforcement, and certainly I was aware of - as I think many people are from magazine articles and so on - of your work with law enforcement. You started off talking about your own training to be a therapist and your experience in therapy. What about psychotherapists? Have there been applications of your work in psychotherapy? Have psychotherapists taken to it?

Paul Ekman: As far as I know, very few know about it or care about it, and I get much more in the requests from law enforcement. I now teach medical students at Mayo Clinic every year, but I think only once or twice - twice at most - have I been asked to help in the training of psychotherapists. Not that I don't think it's extremely relevant to them - I think it is - but putting things into an academic curriculum is a real problem.

But, on the other hand, I have no way to know how many people who are teaching psychotherapists are currently using the stuff I've published or the tools I've put on the Internet. Maybe quite a few are. If they are, they're doing so silently and not telling me. I give a public talk to some public group - lawyers, mediators, etc. - at least three times a month, but in this next year, there will be one time I'm talking to psychiatrists and none to psychologists, none to psychotherapists in general. And that's not because I'm resistant; it's because nobody asked me.

David: Do you think that psychotherapists ought to pick up on it more than they have?

Paul Ekman: Well, if they care about how the patient is feeling. And then I think my book Emotions Revealed as well as my microexpression training tool would be useful to them. I remember having many feelings that I found it very hard to verbalize because of fear of disapproval when I was a patient in psychotherapy, so I figure it would be a useful tool and a useful asset.

I think emotions - and disorders in emotion and dissatisfactions with emotion - do drive people to psychotherapy, and one of the most frequent issues that people have is how can I stop becoming emotional about what's getting me so upset? And another is how can I change how I behave when I am emotional? I think I have three chapters on that in the book Emotions Revealed that suggest some ideas that haven't been suggested before in the literature I know of. It's out there; it's out there for people to try if they want to do it.

David: What about John Gottman's work on marital issues? Are you familiar with his research? Because I believe he's done a lot of very close study of microexpressions between husbands and wives.

Paul Ekman: John has used my work and my research tools. He's one of the few people who has. I've known John for almost 30 years and I admire his work, and I'm glad that he's using it, and he is one of the few who is.

David: Okay, yes, he seems to have used it to good effect. You know, I wear another hat as a market researcher, and they're always looking for tools to probe what people are really thinking about products and services and so on. People in the field tend to shamelessly adapt insights from the social sciences and so on. Are you aware of any market research applications of your work?

Paul Ekman: I am aware of… There is a psychologist who's written a book about it, and he talks about my work a lot. I'm not going to mention his name because I think he gets at least half of it wrong. But it's a very popular book, so I think most market researchers will know it. It's been published in the last year and a half. Some people who formerly worked with me are doing market research. I'm not opposed to market research, but it's not a high priority, and I have not myself gotten involved in any.

David: Right. Now, I was at last year's Happiness Conference in San Francisco that was sponsored by a Tibetan Buddhist organization, and I think you were the very first speaker. And I later learned that you'd co-written a book with the Dalai Lama, based on some marathon conversations about human emotions, and I refer people to your book Emotional Awareness. As you think back about those conversations, what stands out for you?

Paul Ekman: I had such a good time. We became, over the course of 40 hours in one-on-one intense conversation, we really became friends, and I came to feel like he was the brother I never had, and of course he believes that that's literally true in a previous incarnation. We don't have all of the same interests but enough overlap in the areas of emotion and compassion and forgiveness, that we get involved in very intense discussion - I would even say argument without anger, passionate argument without anger. He's a great debater and I'm not too bad myself, and we've really changed our views and come up with new ideas; they're all in that book.

And I think the book Emotional Awareness, which really is the dialogue - it's not like a conventional book - it gives you more of an idea of what he's like as a person, because it's not been converted and edited into prose. It's a discussion; it's a conversation. A lot of his personality and humor comes through. But there are a lot of useful ideas in there, and I'm meeting with him again next month, because my ideas about the nature of compassion have changed quite considerably since that book, and I want to see what he thinks about it.

So it's been a great gift to get to know him at this point of my life and to be able to have these dialogues. And because he represents a tradition that is as elaborate as any Western philosophy or religion but has been out of contact with the rest of the world for so long, he looks at things freshly and takes nothing for granted that we all take for granted. And that's of great benefit because he challenges every assumption that you're making without knowing that you've made that assumption. And, of course, I challenged some of his assumptions that he doesn't know that he's making. So we've just had the most fun. I've never spent 40 hours talking about issues that matter to me with anyone before.

David: Yeah, that's a rare experience for sure. And you two are just about age mates, which is fascinating.

Paul Ekman: I'm a year older than he is, so I view him as my younger brother. And I have to look out for him.

David: And you're both at the top of your game. Often when people debate, they just become more hardened in their own positions, but it sounds like you both approached this in a way that while you were passionate about your positions you were also open to one another. Is there, maybe, one thing that you could share with us that either you changed your mind about or that you learned in the process?

Paul Ekman: It's interesting, I was just writing earlier today about something that we continue to disagree about. I got invited by someone who's celebrating the 150th anniversary of some publication and has invited a bunch of psychologists to write 150 words - no less - about something they still don't understand about themselves. And the Dalai Lama believes that everybody is afraid of dying, and I don't have any fear of death, so I was writing about that. But one of the issues I changed my mind about in the course of these discussions with him was about the function of hatred.

In my book Emotions Revealed, I argue that hatred could in some circumstances motivate positive acts that were of benefit to the person and to society. And I've come to believe that, although that's true in the short run, in the long run hatred is corrosive and maybe it actually has a long-term harmful impact on the person.

And the other thing I think I've become most sensitive to is the dangers of humor that involve any form of ridicule - which can be very funny, but I think has a very negative impact on the person who's enjoying that type of humor. And without wanting to seem self-righteous about it, I think the movie Borat is an example of a very funny humor built largely around ridicule of the people who are acting in very foolish ways. I think that's a bad part of one's own personality to indulge or strengthen.

David: Okay, I can go along with that. In your introduction to that book, you make reference to some research you carried out with advanced meditators. What is that research?

Paul Ekman: The only thing that we carried to completion was a study of a single Buddhist monk, who's been a monk for 32 years. And what we were able to do is to identify the differences between different forms of meditation and its impact on his mental state, and we were also able to show the calming effect that his presence had in discussion with people who are normally or typically very aggressive. I'm delinquent in not getting it published; it's been in a draft form for about three years.

David: Oh, boy.

Paul Ekman: I'll get it out one of these days. It's just there are too many things to do.

David: Yeah, well, it does sound fascinating. We'll look forward to that. Now, another story that you tell in the book is - well, you don't really go into detail, and I don't know if you will now or not - but you, in passing, mention having a transformative experience that you underwent as your daughter Eve was asking the Dalai Lama about love and anger. Is that something that you would be willing to talk about here?

Paul Ekman: Oh, yes. Actually, the whole last chapter of the book is about it, and I couldn't get the Dalai Lama to talk about it at all. I know he knows what's going on, and all the people who are typically around him as translators and scholars all have seen exactly what I experienced happening with other people, and in fact, they gave me leads to some of those other people and I interviewed them. So what I've learned is a lot about what makes you open to, or available to, have such an experience when encountering such an unusual person as the Dalai Lama who seems to exude goodness, if I can use a non-21st century term. One thing is that they are at a transition point in their life - I was about to retire. Others had recovered from a life-threatening illness or had just gone through a divorce or changing occupations, so they are transitions. And otherwise they all had a severe emotional trauma in childhood.

David: What was the experience that you had?

Paul Ekman: Well, I can't really characterize it other than it changed the role of anger in my life from having been a daily concern to not overreact, which I often did, to being a minor concern since I rarely overreact. And for months, I never felt any anger at all.

David: I notice that you're on the board of Dacher Keltner's Greater Good magazine. I just interviewed Dacher just a few days ago, by coincidence, and understand that he was one of your students. What's your take on the positive psychology movement?

Paul Ekman: Well, I have some hesitation about it because I do not believe that - this is one of the things I got the Dalai Lama to change on - that any emotion is either positive or negative. I think that's an over-simplification. The humor that's used to ridicule is negative; there is forms of anger that can be very constructive. The issue is how to constructively enact any emotion, so I would be in favor of a constructive emotion movement. I think the positive psychology movement is an over-simplification of a more complex set of matters.

David: Okay, as we begin to wind down here, is there anything about human emotions and their expression that still puzzles you?

Paul Ekman: Oh, there's a lot of things. I don't really understand why, for example, some people when they lie about strong emotions don't show microexpressions. Not everyone does. I don't know why some people don't; there's other reasons to believe they're having the same emotion.

I don't really know the extent to which the emotional triggers are fixed, either through experience in early life, or are totally modifiable. Now, there's a lot of work these days on neuroplasticity, but very little of it has to do with emotion. I have tended to believe - but it's a belief because I don't really know the answer - that there's much less plasticity for only some people with what triggers their emotions. And yet I've written again and again in the Emotions Revealed book about things one can try to do to change or weaken. But can you just weaken a trigger, or can you completely erase it so it no longer gets to you? I don't know the answer to that.

So most of my questions are really about emotion, not about expression. I think we know most of what we need to know, but I'll give you one about expression. In English we have about 12 different terms for different types of anger. I know there are more than 12 different angry expressions, but some of them have to do with simply the strength from annoyance to rage. But is there a difference between the expression of indignation and vengefulness? I don't know, and no one else knows either. So, though I think of each emotion as a family of related experiences, we don't know the extent to which each member of that family maps onto a different expression, or to put it differently, how many of the facial expressions that we can distinguish are literally synonyms, and how many are actually showing us different variations on the same thing.

David: Okay, well, thank you very much. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to leave our audience with?

Paul Ekman: No, but it's been a good interview. I enjoyed it.

David: Okay, well, Dr. Paul Ekman, you've been very generous with your time. Thanks so much for being my guest today on Wise Counsel.

Paul Ekman: My pleasure.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Paul Ekman. I've wanted to get an interview with him for years. As you might guess, he's very high profile and in high demand. Then, quite by chance, I discovered that he's been friends for years with family members who I'd been out of touch with. It's a small world indeed. You can learn more about Dr. Ekman and his work at

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

  • In the interview, Dr. Ekman described an online training tool for learning to become aware of people's microexpressions of emotions that reveal what they really are feeling. There are several instances of this tool, known as METT; the original METT and the advanced METT 2 versions of the tools.

  • Dr. Ekman's website, featuring his blog Truth about "lie to me" is available at

About Paul ekman, Ph.D.

Paul ekman, Ph.D.Paul Ekman was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and New York University. He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Adelphi University (1958), after a one year internship at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute. After two years as a Clinical Psychology Officer in the U.S. Army, he returned to Langley Porter where he worked from 1960 to 2004. His research on facial expression and body movement began in 1954, as the subject of his Master's thesis in 1955 and his first publication in 1957. In his early work, his approach to nonverbal behavior showed his training in personality. Over the next decade, a social psychological and cross-cultural emphasis characterized his work, with a growing interest in an evolutionary and semiotic frame of reference. In addition to his basic research on emotion and its expression, he has, for the last thirty years, also been studying deceit.

Currently, he is the Manager of the Paul Ekman Group, LLC (PEG), a small company that produces training devices relevant to emotional skills, and is initiating new research relevant to national security and law enforcement. In 1971, he received a Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health; that Award has been renewed in 1976, 1981, 1987, 1991, and 1997. His research was supported by fellowships, grants and awards from the National Institute of Mental Health for over forty years.

Articles reporting on Dr. Ekman's work have appeared in Time Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Psychology Today, The New Yorker and others, both American and foreign. Numerous articles about his work have also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and other national newspapers.

He has appeared on 48 Hours, Dateline, Good Morning America, 20/20, Larry King, Oprah, Johnny Carson and many other TV programs. He has also been featured on various public television programs such as News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and Bill Moyers' The Truth About Lying.

Ekman is co-author of Emotion in the Human Face (1971), Unmasking the Face (1975), Facial Action Coding System (1978), editor of Darwin and Facial Expression (1973), co-editor of Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research (1982), Approaches to Emotion (1984), The Nature of Emotion (1994), What the Face Reveals (1997), and author of Face of Man (1980), Telling Lies (1985, paperback, 1986, second edition, 1992, third edition, 2001, 4th edition 2008), Why Kids Lie (1989, paperback 1991), Emotions Revealed, (2003), New Edition (2009) Telling Lies, Dalai Lama-Emotional Awareness (2008) and New Edition Emotions Revealed (2007) . He is the editor of the third edition (1998) and the fourth edition (2009) of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1998). He has published more than 100 articles.

Reader Comments
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Great Interview! - Sarah Zeldman - Nov 1st 2009

I loved this interview. I can't believe that I never heard of Dr. Ekman and his work before. As soon as I'm done with my positive psychology course I'm going to take his microexpression training (Even if I can never turn it off...What a useful skill to have!) I'm going to try to get my hands on the DVDs of Lie to me...(I hope they have them since I don't have TV in my house!) Thank you for this interview. You did great! (I have to admit, I was a little nervous for you when he said that he didn't like some of his previous interviewers!)

face reading - stuart lee - Oct 20th 2009

you dont have to be formally trained to read pretty good at it myself.i am gifted with bipolar and am 45 and i was able to read my mental health clinician better than he could read me.also the eyes are the window to the soul..need i say more

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