Can you read people’s thoughts just by looking at them?

MALCOLM GLADWELL – The New Yorker

All of us, a thousand times a day, read faces. When someone says “I
love you, ” we look into that person’s eyes to judge his or her sincerity. When we meetsomeone new, we often pick up on subtle signals, so that, even though he or she may have talked in a normal and friendly manner, afterward we say, “I don’t think he liked me,” or “I don’t think she’s very happy.” We easily parse complex
distinctions in facial expression. If you saw me grinning, for example, with my eyes twinkling, you’d say I was amused. But that’s not the only way we interpret a smile. If you saw me nod and smile exaggeratedly, with the corners of my lips tightened, you would take it that I had been teased and was responding sarcastically. If I made eye contact with someone, gave a small smile and then looked down and averted my gaze, you would think I was flirting. If I followed a
remark with an abrupt smile and then nodded, or tilted my head
sideways, you might conclude that I had just said something a little harsh, and wanted to take the edge off it. You wouldn’t need to hear anything I was saying in order toreach these conclusions. The face is such an extraordinarily efficient instrument of communication that there must be rules that govern the way we interpret facial expressions. But what are those rules? And are they the same for everyone?…
…Silvan Tomkins may have been the best face reader
there ever was. Tomkins was from Philadelphia, the son of a dentist from Russia. He was short, and slightly thick around the middle, with a wild mane of white hair and huge black plastic-rimmed glasses. He taught psychology at Princeton and Rutgers, and was the author of “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness,” a four-volume work so dense that its readers were evenly divided between those who understood
it and thought it was brilliant and those who did not understand it and thought it was brilliant. He was a legendary talker. At the end of a cocktail party, fifteen people would sit, rapt, at Tomkins’s feet, and someone would say, “One more question!” and they would all sit there for another hour and a half, as Tomkins held forth on, say, comic books, a television sitcom, the biology of emotion, his problem with Kant, and his enthusiasm for the latest fad diets, all
enfolded into one extended riff. During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a
horse-racing syndicate, and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours, staring at thehorses through binoculars, he was known as the Professor. “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman said. If a male horse, for
instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be
ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something likethat-no one really knew for certain.) Tomkins felt that emotion was the code to life, and that with enough attention to particulars the code could be cracked.
He thought this about the horses, and, more important, he thought this about the human face.
Tomkins, it was said, could walk into a post office, go over to the “Wanted” posters, and, just by looking at mug shots, tell you what crimes the various fugitives had committed. “He would watch the show ‘To Tell the Truth,’ and without fault he ould always pick the person who was lying and who his confederates were,” his son, Mark, recalls. “He actually wrote the producer at one point to say it was too easy, and the man invited him to come to New York, go backstage, and show his stuff.” Virginia Demos, who teaches psychology at
Harvard, recalls having long conversations with Tomkins. “We would sit and talk on the phone, and he would turn the sound down as Jesse Jackson was talking toMichael Dukakis, at the Democratic National Convention. And he would read the faces and give his predictions on what would happen. It was profound.”…
…Ekman and Friesen decided that they needed to create a taxonomy of facialexpressions, so day after day they sat across from each other and began to makeevery conceivable face they could. Soon, though, they realized that theirefforts weren’t enough. “I met an anthropologist, Wade Seaford, told him what Iwas doing, and he said, ‘Do you have this movement?’ “-and here Ekman contracted
what’s called the triangularis, which is the muscle that depresses the corners of the lips, forming an arc of distaste-“and it wasn’t in my system, because I had never seen it before. I had built a system not on what the face can do but on what I had seen. I was devastated. So I came back and said, ‘I’ve got to learn the anatomy.’ ” Friesen and Ekman then combed through medical textbooks that outlined each of the facial muscles, and identified every distinct muscular movement that the face could make. There were forty-three such movements. Ekman and Friesen called them “action units.” Then they sat across from each other again, and began anipulating each action unit in turn, first locating the muscle in their mind and then concentrating on isolating it, watching each other closely as they did, checking their movements in a mirror, making notes of how the wrinkle patterns on their faces would change with each muscle movement, and
videotaping the movement for their records. On the few occasions when
they couldn’t make a particular movement, they went next door to the
U.C.S.F. anatomy department, where a surgeon they knew would stick them with a needle and electrically stimulate the recalcitrant muscle. “That wasn’t pleasant at all,”
Ekman recalls. When each of those action units had been mastered, Ekman and Friesen began working action units in combination, layer- ing one movement on top of another. The entire process took seven years. “There are three hundred combinations of two muscles,” Ekman says. “If you add in a third, you get overfour thousand. We took it up to five muscles, which is over ten thousand visible facial configurations.” Most of those ten thousand facial expressions don’t mean anything, of course. They are the kind of nonsense faces that children make.
But, by working through each action-unit combination, Ekman and Friesenidentified about three thousand that did seem to mean something, until they had catalogued the essential repertoire of human emotion…
…Ekman and Friesen decided that they needed to create a taxonomy of facial expressions, so day after day they sat across from each other and began to make every conceivable face they could. Soon, though, they realized that their efforts weren’t enough. “I met an anthropologist, Wade Seaford, told him what I was doing, and he said, ‘Do you have this movement?’ “-and here Ekman contracted what’s called the triangularis, which is the muscle that depresses the
corners of the lips, forming an arc of distaste-“and it wasn’t in my system, because I had never seen it before. I had built a system not on what the face can do buton what I had seen. I was devastated. So I came back and said, ‘I’ve got to learn the anatomy.’ ” Friesen and Ekman then combed through medical textbooks that outlined each of the facial muscles, and identified every distinct muscular
movement that the face could make. There were forty-three such
movements. Ekman and Friesen called them “action units.” Then they sat across from each other again, and began manipulating each action unit in turn, first locating the muscle in their mind and then concentrating on isolating it, watching each other closely as they did, checking their movements in a mirror, making notes of how
the wrinkle patterns on their faces would change with each muscle
movement, and videotaping the movement for their records. On the few occasions when theycouldn’t make a particular movement, they went next door to the U.C.S.F. anatomy department, where a surgeon they knew would stick them with a needle and electrically stimulate the recalcitrant muscle. “That wasn’t pleasant at all,”
Ekman recalls. When each of those action units had been mastered, Ekman and Friesen began working action units in combination, layer- ing one movement on top of another. The entire process took seven years. “There are three hundred combinations of two muscles,” Ekman says. “If you add in a third, you get over four thousand. We took it up to five muscles, which is over ten thousand visible facial configurations.” Most of those ten thousand facial expressions
don’t mean anything, of course. They are the kind of nonsense faces that children make.
But, by working through each action-unit combination, Ekman and Friesen identified about three thousand that did seem to mean something, until they had catalogued the essential repertoire of human emotion…
The New Yorker – August 5, 2002

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