Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021
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The face of the deceiver

Do expressions really reveal your true emotional intentions?

“The face is like the penis!” once roared Princeton psychology professor Silvan Tompkins. That was back in the ‘50s and his students were properly shocked. The outburst occurred during a course on human emotions and the point Tompkins so memorably made was that the face betrays true emotions, regardless of how “zipped-up” a person may think himself to be.

Another Tompkins trick was to watch politicians’ debate on television with the sound turned off to more accurately discern their motivations. His pedagogic fervour and his uncanny ability to accurately assess facial emotions inspired one bright young student to set out on a quest for the holy grail of emotion-reading: a system which could be used to correctly analyze the emotional content of faces just by observing people talk.

Named one of the top 100 most influential people of 2009 by Time Magazine, Dr Paul Ekman has risen to near-celebrity status. His work on facial expressions informed the animation of sympathetic characters in Pixar’s Toy Story and he was the inspiration for a character in a 2006-2009 TV miniseries called Lie To Me. He also works with the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on airport screening. His detractors take issue with that as yet another governmental invasion of privacy. They could have a point, he’s often been called “the best human lie detector in the world.”

Mad man?

When he first set out to crack the code of the face, his first visit was to renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead at her office in the American Museum of Natural History. He was excited about a discovery he had just made in a book published by Charles Darwin in 1872 called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals which suggested that all mammals reliably show emotions in their faces. But Mead thought Darwin’s idea was wrong and that Ekman was crazy – a less than auspicious start. In the 60s, the prevailing theory was that facial expressions were culturally determined.

Undaunted, Ekman embarked on a global journey with a stack of black and white photographs of peoples’ faces, gathering evidence of an overwhelming agreement on how people interpreted expressions of fear, sadness, happiness, anger, surprise and disgust, what he thought might be the six major universally recognized emotions. Concerned that Western culture may have influenced his subjects, he travelled to the jungles of Papua, New Guinea and showed his stack of face photos to people in remote villages, with similar results. At the time, his results — which may seem a little obvious to us now — were a breakthrough.

Confirming the cross-cultural correlation of the six major expressions felt like the tip of the iceberg to Ekman. What he wanted was a complete taxonomy of facial expressions. Sit across from a friend and make faces at each other. How many distinct expressions can you count? He quickly realized that simply recording the faces he and his colleagues could produce was inadequate. He adopted a systematic, anatomical approach, digging through anatomy books and isolating each facial muscle. He and his team came up with 43 possible distinct muscular movements in the face, calling them “action units.” By layering the action units on top of each other, they came up with 300 combinations of muscles, capable of producing over 10,000 visible facial configurations. About 7000 of those were nonsensical funny-faces but the other three thousand could be catalogued as the essential vocabulary of human emotion.

Suicide face

The coding took seven years and was completed in 1975. Ekman and colleagues called it the Facial Action Coding System. Once that hefty task was done, he could focus on his real passion: detecting hidden emotions. In the early days of his career he had stumbled on a fascinating detail while watching a slow-motion video of a suicidal patient at a mental hospital. While speaking casually about future plans, a look of total despair flashed across her face, perceptible only when the video was seen frame by frame. Ekman would later dub this brief flash of feeling a “micro-expression.” The patient confessed to having been planning to kill herself the following weekend.

Emotion spotting

This insight served as the basis for what has become Ekman’s most popular concept: our faces betray our true emotions, even when we want to hide what we’re feeling, the observation pointed out so unforgettably by his mentor. Ekman believed that the ability to read hidden emotions could be taught, and after considerable work, he developed a training program to do so, calling it the Micro Expressions Training Tool (METT).

Ekman’s reach has been considerable. Highlights include:

• As little as an hour of training in the perception of micro and subtle emotions has been shown to increase patient-rated empathy among medical and surgical trainees.

• Using the Ekman 60 Faces Test, health professionals have been able to reach 97 percent diagnostic accuracy in patients with front temporal dementia.

• Those suffering from schizophrenia can dramatically improve their ability to read emotions after going through the METT training.

• Law enforcement officers, educators, therapists, entertainers, and the full range of health care professionals have benefited from METT training.

One of Ekman’s weightiest and most controversial projects has been his involvement with the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as an advisor on a project known as Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT). In spite of the billions that have been spent on the program -- which uses Ekman’s methods among a host of others to train security personnel to focus on facial and body cues that might indicate suspicious behavior -- the scientific efficacy of the program has yet to be proven. Indeed, the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, says that it is unsure whether the SPOT program has “ever resulted in the arrest of anyone who is a terrorist, or who was planning to engage in terrorist-related activity.”

Going global?

Proven in the field or not, the SPOT program continues and may soon be augmented by computers to take the place of humans trained to detect worrisome emotions. One such piece of software, known as the Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox (CERT), has the same success rate as trained humans at detecting emotions, but it’s faster, which makes it an appealing option for airport security. A number of other emotion-detection software companies have sprung up, with names like Emotient, Affectiva, and Eyeris. Emotient has recorded the facial reactions of thousands of people with a variety of ethnic backgrounds, while Affectiva says it has culled seven billion emotional reactions from 2.4 million face videos in 80 countries. Ekman questions the development of such software. He recognizes the potential for Big Brother-style abuses and even suggests that he may have inadvertently “created a monster.”

“I can’t control usage,” says Ekman. “I can only be certain that what I’m providing is at least an accurate depiction of when someone is concealing an emotion.” Emotions should not be recorded without a person’s permission, he is careful to assert.

Othello's error

In spite of Ekman’s claim to fame as a human lie-detector and his fondness for spotting lies on the faces of politicians — he is famous for pointing out the signs of distress on Clinton’s face during the former president’s famous assertion that he did “not have sexual relations with that woman” — he is the first to point out that micro expressions do not necessarily indicate the presence of a lie. The failure to recognize this is what he calls, “Othello’s error.”

“Othello read Desdemona’s fear accurately. But he didn’t recognize that the fear of being disbelieved is just like the fear of being caught. Yes, our faces reveal what emotions we’re experiencing, if you can read the signs. What our faces don’t necessarily reveal is what triggered the emotion,” he explains.

So your face may betray you, but that doesn’t make your true emotions any easier for others to fathom. For those who prefer to keep their feelings to themselves, this is a comforting reminder.

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