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Recently read: "Emotions Revealed"

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on August 20, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Paul Ekman is well-known for his work on facial expressions and emotion. You may remember him from such popularizing articles as this Malcolm Gladwell piece, back in 2002. Emotions Revealed does cover Ekman’s main area of research, facial expressions, but it also contains quite a bit on emotions in general. Ekman singles out for special attention sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt and a number of enjoyable emotions.

I had rather a mixed impression of this book. There are long stretches of the book in which Ekman discusses a particular emotion, or how to deal appropriately with a particular emotion, that struck me as rather banal. This passage on irritability illustrates the point, although irritability is, as Ekman points out, a mood rather than an emotion:
Everyone has a harder time controlling their anger when they are in an irritable mood. When we are irritable, we become angry about matters that would bother us if we weren’t irritable. We are looking for an opportunity to become angry. When we are irritable, something that might have just annoyed us makes us angrier, while something that made us just moderately angry makes us furious. Anger felt in an irritable mood lasts longer and is harder to manage. No one knows how to get out of a mood; sometimes indulging in activities we really enjoy, but not always. My advice is to avoid people when you are feeling irritable, if you can recognize that you are in an irritable mood. Often that isn’t obvious until we have the first angry outburst, then realize it happened because we are feeling irritable.

If you found that informative and helpful, then by all means, run and get yourself a copy of the book, since there’s a whole lot more like it. As for me, I hope it won’t look like bragging if I claim that I already knew to avoid people when I’m feeling irritable. (To be fair, some of the discussions are better on this point than others. I thought the survey of enjoyable emotions was interesting enough.)

Anyway, it’s when Ekman turns his attention to facial expressions that the book becomes really informative and interesting. You get lots of photographs of faces, with detailed discussions of the sometimes very subtle differences in expression that display emotion. These discussions were enough to keep me interested in reading more of Ekman’s work in the future.