Paul Ekman

Mindfulness: How to Call Off the Emotional Attack Dogs

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Nature didn't give us any tools to control our emotions. That is why psychologist Paul Ekman says you need to keep a diary of your emotions, writing what you are experiencing in great detail.

Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman 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.

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.

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.


Paul Ekman: There are two things that people want to be able to do to improve their emotional life.  You want to be able to choose what you become emotional about and when you become emotional.  That’s number one.  And the second is you want to be able to choose how you act when you are emotional.  

Well, nature didn’t want you to do either.  So it didn’t give you any tools.  So if you’re going to learn how to do this, it’s going to be hard work, and it isn’t going to be the kind of learning like learning to ride a bicycle.  Once you learn to ride a bicycle you can stay off it for ten years and get right back on it and ride.  What I’m going to tell you now, if you don’t do every day, you’ll fall off.  You got to practice it all the time.  It’s like being a concert pianist.  It doesn’t stick unless you practice it.

So let’s take problem number one, having more choice about what you become emotional about.  And that’s--the only reason we want that is because sometimes we become emotional about things that we don’t think merit becoming emotional, or we act in a way that we don’t approve of afterwards.  That’s the number two problem.

The first step is to keep a diary of when you become emotional.  Now you won’t know in advance but you’ll surely know when it’s over that you just had an emotional episode.  Write it down in detail.  Do this for a month.  Then go through it and look for what are the themes that are causing your emotions.  If it isn’t apparent to you, get a friend to look at it, but it should be very apparent to you when you read through this diary.

And you should be able to identify three or four redundant things that have again and again getting you to act emotionally.  Now the ones where you think you responded emotionally and there was no reason to be emotional, draw a red circle around them.  

Now how many of those have the same theme?  Now you’re equipped.  You know what the triggers are.  Now when you’re about to enter a situation, think: Is this likely to trigger one of my themes?  If so, what can I do?  Can I calm my mind?  Do a full-body scan?  Do meditation?  Did I not get much sleep last night, so I’m likely to go off?  Maybe I better postpone this meeting ‘cause it’s going to have one of my hot triggers.  Or, am I in pretty good shape, and I’m prepared and I know what might be coming right down the road?  That’s step one on problem one.  

Step two is harder, and it is to increase the gap between impulse and action.  The way this works, an emotion episode begin with an appraisal that something is triggering your emotion that’s based on your previous life experience that’s stored in what I call your emotional alert database.  This diary is trying to find out what’s in that database.  But this appraisal mechanism is continually scanning wherever you are, looking for any of these triggers.  And it’s incredibly fast and not always accurate.  The moment it clicks on something, an impulse arises.  That impulse, if it gets to the circuitry in your brain for a particular emotion, it’ll set off emotion in your expression, in your voice, your posture, your words, but there is a – it takes time for the impulse to get translated into action.

You want to lengthen that time so you can spot the impulse arising before you act.  This is not easy.  For some people it’s a lot easier for others because they normally have a very slow rise time, and others I call the attack dogs.  They have almost instant, very little delay between impulse and action.  But strangely enough, the only thing that seems to stretch that out is a contemplative practice called Mindfulness and it takes a minimum of about 20 minutes a day and at least four days a week, if you want to try it.  And it’ll take about six months to start to have an effect and then it’ll only continue if you continue to do it.  And you won’t always spot the impulse, but sometimes you’ll have the wonderful feeling of being able to tell I’m about to get angry.  I think I won’t.  I’ll let it go; I’ll let that just go right by me.  It won’t happen all the time, but sometimes.

So here are the two techniques.  One, the trigger diary to find out what’s in your emotional alert database.  Number two, spreading the time gap between impulse and action.  Now we’re ready to move to the second and somewhat easier step.  How do I become aware of the fact that I’m acting emotionally when I am?  

There are two things that can ring the bell and let me know that I’m doing it.  One is, pay close attention to the other person’s facial expressions ‘cause they are the recipient of your emotions – you can’t see your own face; they see it, but you can see their face and you can tell how they’re reacting, and you can say, “Oh, my God.  They’re starting to look very disappointed; what am I doing that’s so disappointing them?  How am I acting?” 

It’s one source.  The second source: the changes within your body, changes in your musculature, in your respiration, in your sweating, in the temperature of the different parts of your body.  They are different, we found, for different emotions.  The problem is we pay no attention to them.  The exercise of making expressions or being a little Stanislavski actor, recalling past emotional experiences, trying to relive them and focus on what those sensations are.  We’ve got to bring the sensations that are unique to each emotion into consciousness.  So you’ll start to feel it while you’re experiencing it.

Those are the two steps.  It’s a lot easier for you to learn how to be more attentive to other people than to learn how to have any choice about what you become emotional about and to learn to have choice and knowledge of when you’re becoming emotional, but it’s a good goal and if you succeed you’ll like yourself better and others will like you better.

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


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