Psychologist Paul Ekman: Getting to Know the Man Behind the Success

An Intimate Paul Ekman Interview

psychologist paul ekman

December 26, 2018

The world knows Dr. Ekman as a celebrated research psychologist, a best-selling author, a sought-after scientific advisor to Hollywood, and even a “brother” to the Dalai Lama. Earlier this month we set out to get to know Paul, the man behind all the success. Over a meal of his favorite Thai take-out, we talked about everything from his favorite movies to his fear of how his research could be used to cause more harm than good.

Where would you like to see your research applied in the future?

In the best case scenario I would like to see my research and micro expressions training tools used only with consent and within therapeutic settings. It would also be great to have more developmental research- more research on young children and old people. Most research is done with college students as research subjects, so it would be interesting to know how this may change with age. Overtime does the face reveal more or less? We know that the face gets less agile, permanent wrinkles make it a little more difficult to read expressions as it creates “noise”.

I’m fascinated by the idea from the book The Picture of Dorian Gray. Can you tell from someone’s face anything about the life they’ve lived and the emotions they’ve felt? I suspect the answer is no, but as far as I know, no one has actually done the research on this.

Another question I’ve thought about doing more research on is about facial hair and the effects on expressions. Does it make facial movement more or less visible? Would it make micro expressions harder to see?

What is your greatest fear when it comes to how others could use your research?

Well, my greatest fear is that people would use it without consent to invade people’s privacy. At one point, I tried to control who could use my micro expressions training tools, and it was the Defense Department who advised me that once it’s out there, there’s no way you can absolutely control it – you just have to hope that it will be used in ways you would like it to be more than not. More malevolent uses could be through surveillance without consent, interrogations with adversary nations, and things of that nature. Since it’s out of my control who uses it and for what reason, I have mixed feelings about it. It’s hard to say if I went back, would I do it again? Maybe I would but then destroy it… Then again, if I didn’t do it, I believe it would have been done by someone else, and maybe not as well. It was ripe for the picking, as they say, and I can only hope that by making it generally available, it’s better that the public have access to it rather than just have it be privately available to those potentially malevolent forces.

What’s a favorite research study that either you’ve personally been a part of or read about from the field?

I wouldn’t say I have favorites, per se. Some research yields surprising findings, sometimes extremely disappointing, sometimes enlightening. Generally there are two kinds of research: research for discovery, where you don’t know what you will find, and research for confirmation, where you have pretty good idea and just want to have the evidence for it).

In my work, I primarily have tried to do discovery research; it’s exciting but it’s also a big gamble and you often end up with nothing. There’s an expectation that you’ll find something that nobody knows about. It’s high risk, high gain; if you succeed, you’ll get a lot of credit, but if you fail, nobody will know about it. I think there should be a journal of negative findings so that people don’t repeat the same mistakes.

What was it like to work with the cast and crew of ‘Lie To Me’

At first I tried to stop the show from happening. When Sam Baum wrote all the scripts in the first year, which was its best year, he came to see me and said what they were going to do. At first, I said I wouldn’t cooperate at all, but then he told me to think twice because if I cooperated, I’d get to see every script before it was shot and give feedback as a scientific advisor. He then said that they may not take the advice but that they would always listen to it. So, I agreed.

Actually, I really like Baum. He was bright, personable and interesting. I specified that the character who played me couldn’t be married, Jewish, or American, hence Cal Lightman’s character background and accent. I used to go to LA and sit on the stage and coach Tim [Roth]. He both wanted it and hated it.

What were your concerns about the show?

My biggest concern was that I didn’t want to create the idea that by watching this program, you’re going to learn how to catch liars. I didn’t want someone to be sitting on jury duty and think they knew enough from the show to spot a lie and then make a mistake and cause havoc. I tried to get the program to have an episode on the effect of the mistake of judging someone who is truthful to be a liar.

If you could go back, would you do it again?

It was never my intention to be involved with a TV show, though looking back I realize it was an amazing way to have an impact. If they did a reboot I would want to participate. It was fun and I thought it was important that they didn’t make major mistakes that could cause trouble.

Do you ever wish you weren’t able to read micro expressions? 

There are certainly times I wish I didn’t, but you also have to really work to read micro expressions and, most of the time, I don’t pay such close attention. You can’t turn it off, but you don’t have to act on it. What’s avoidable is using it in ways that violate privacy.

I have always followed the rule in my personal life of never saying anything to anyone I have a personal relationship with about having picked up on a micro expression they’ve just let slip. If I do notice, I take account of it, though I’ve worked hard with my children to try to never put them in a position where they might be tempted to lie. That takes some effort, but what parents want is to not fall into the trap of being a policeman. Instead, you want to be the person your kids turn to when they get in trouble.

What’s something about you that might surprise your fans?

Here’s one: I never graduated high school. I got thrown out of high school more than once for talking back to teachers. Once, in ninth grade, my teacher announced the novels we were going to read that year and I raised my hand asking, “Why no Hemingway or Fitzgerald?” They said, “Because I’m the teacher,” so I responded, “Why did we just finish the war with Hitler to have a dictator in high school?”

I’m quite proud of that one because I said what I believed before thinking ahead. Looking back now, I still think it was exactly the right thing to say.

Okay, last question: What are some of your favorite movies and musical artists?

Well, my all time favorite movies are Casablanca and For Whom the Bells Toll. My favorite song would be anything by Paul Simon – he’s wonderful. I’ve never seen him in concert though there’s a great PBS special on him I watched a while back – it’s worth seeing!


Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

Comments 1

  1. Reportedly the Chinese Government is investing heavily in several areas. Supercomputers, A.I. and facial recognition tech among them. Their public surveillance cameras are said to have been used to track down suspects at least as far back as the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The recent and ongoing protests in Hong Kong show people wearing facemasks to try to protect their identity. Big Brother (comrade) is definitely watching. ( NSA here) The book 1984 was a dystopian fantasy that was not technically possible in the late 1940s when it was written, but now it is all too easy.
    I wonder which you think is more likely. That the same technical advances that have made information available to nearly anyone with I.T. access and also authoritarian control possible, will sink us or save us?

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