Think you’re good at reading people? Most people feel they are, but actually fail miserably at it, confusing a half smile with approval when it signals contempt, or accepting an expression of apparent confidence while missing the concealed fear that lies beneath it.
Misreading facial expressions and the emotions underlying them results in a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunication. Often the failure comes from an inability to recognize minute expressions – micro-expressions that flash across a face for less than a 15th of a second – that reveal the true emotions a person may be uncomfortable expressing or is simply trying to conceal.
“These expressions tend to be very extreme and very fast,” said Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and an expert in the physiology of emotion and nonverbal communication. “Eighty to 90 percent of people we tested don’t see them.”
Micro-expressions represent “the most extreme expressions human beings can make in a very fast period of time” and usually involve the entire face. Subtle expressions are easily overlooked because they involve minor movement in parts of the face – raised eyelids that might signal the beginnings of fear or surprise, or the angled upturn of the inner eyebrows that might signal the beginnings of sadness.
But a new set of CD-ROMs developed by Ekman can help people recognize emotional “leakage” – facial expressions that signal when a person is willfully suppressing or unconsciously repressing an emotion.
In conjunction with his book Emotions Revealed, Ekman has produced two CD-ROMs, which he sells separately through his website, to train anyone, in under an hour, to spot fleeting expressions and interpret emotions they might otherwise miss if they were distracted by a person’s gestures or tone of voice.
The Micro Expression Training Tool, or METT, covers concealed emotions, and the Subtle Expression Training Tool, or SETT, explores more subtle expressions that occur when someone is just beginning to feel an emotion. Each sells for $30.
[Anger and disgust](popChild() are often mistaken.
Both CD-ROMs are easy to use and cover the seven emotions universally expressed by all cultures – anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness and contempt (interpreted as moral superiority).
The METT CD offers a pretest to help viewers score their recognition skills by viewing fleeting expressions of 14 people and choosing the corresponding emotion. Then a training session shows and describes the characteristics of the expression related to each emotion, with a practice session using 28 faces. After the pretest, users can retake the test with 14 new faces and compare the two scores.
Ekman said that in his tests of about 10,000 people, most correctly read emotional expressions only slightly more than half the time. People who take the CD-ROM test, he said, tend to score 50 to 60 percent. But after doing the training and practice they score 80 to 85 percent.
Confusion between [fear and surprise](popChild() is explained.
Ekman said people most often confuse the expressions for fear and surprise, as well as the ones for anger and disgust, because they involve some of the same muscles.
Ekman’s daughter, Eve, is the model in the SETT CD, which runs through the seven emotions as they might flit across various parts of the face – for instance, the wrinkled nose that universally signifies disgust (or perhaps simply the smell of bad fish).
Ekman said psychiatrists, diplomats, lawyers, businesspeople and parents of autistic children (who often find it difficult to recognize emotions in others), have all found the CD-ROMs useful.
Ekman knows emotions and expressions. He has spent nearly 50 years studying them and has trained police officers, judges and lawyers, as well as FBI, CIA and ATF forces to detect deception in the faces of criminal suspects. He also has worked with Pixar animators and Industrial Light and Magic technicians to help them craft facial expressions in movie characters.
He was a pioneer in the study of facial expression and emotions in the 1950s, when many of his colleagues felt he was wasting his time.
That’s because scientists then believed that expressions and gestures were learned socially and varied among cultures. Charles Darwin, however, believed that at least seven of the basic emotions – sadness, happiness, anger, contempt, disgust, fear and surprise – were expressed in the same way universally.
So Ekman set out to prove this by studying populations in Japan, Brazil, the United States, Indonesia and the former Soviet Union. All exhibited the same expressions.
To prove that other cultures hadn’t learned the expressions through TV or film, Ekman trudged to Papua New Guinea to study people who had never been exposed to media or other cultures around them. The Papuans had never seen a match or viewed their image in a mirror. Yet when they expressed surprise or fear at either of these, they used the same expressions that anyone in the world would use.
Ekman said it’s hard to overstate the importance of emotions, because they are the motivation for most of what we do in life. Quoting one of his mentors, he said we all organize our lives to maximize the experience of positive emotions and minimize the experience of negatives ones.
Furthermore, failure to read emotions in others can have detrimental effects on important relationships. Misreading feelings has resulted in many divorces, family feuds and even mistaken criminal convictions, he said.
“With my children, spouse, friends and work associates, if I don’t understand how they’re feeling – either about me or about (things) that may have nothing to do with me when we interact – then I’m not going to have a very useful exchange with them,” Ekman said.
Misreading emotions also leads to social isolation. “People don’t want to interact with people who misread them,” he said. They feel misunderstood.
But Ekman cautioned that recognizing an emotion isn’t the same as understanding it or its source. There are many reasons, he said, why someone might be sad or fearful, and jumping to conclusions can be more harmful than not being aware of the emotion.
He cited Othello, Shakespeare’s notoriously jealous husband, as an example of someone who misread the signs. “Othello murdered Desdemona because he presumed that emotions have only one cause. Desdemona was afraid for her life because her insanely jealous husband had just killed someone who he thought was her lover. But Othello thought she was afraid because she was guilty of infidelity.”
Recognition of emotions can be used in both constructive and destructive ways; Ekman’s book Emotions Revealed teaches readers how to use his training in helpful ways. And he’s working on another CD-ROM that will instruct people in how to do the same.