I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Blink, which is about the ways we make split second decisions, and why snap judgments sometimes works and sometimes don't work. The entire book is a goldmine of delightfully non-intuitive surprises (I mentioned one of them, the triangle test
in another entry about Gladwell's talk at PopTech), but the standout chapter for me was about the work of Silvan Tomkins, a psychology professor at Princeton and Rutgers.
Tomkins was an expert at studying facial muscles and what they revealed about people. His theories bordered on phrenology:
[Tomkins] could walk into a post office, it was said, 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 could always pick the person who was lying and who his confederates were," his son, Mark, recalls.
His ability to figure out the lifestyles of people just by looking at their faces is astonishing:
[Tomkins pupil, Paul] Ekman had just tracked down a hundred thousand feet of film that had been shot by the virologist Carleton Gajdusek in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. Some of the footage was of a tribe called the South Fore, who were a peaceful and friendly people. The rest was of the Kukukuku, who were hostile and murderous and who had a homosexual ritual where pre-adolescent boys were required to serve as courtesans for the male elders of the tribe. For six months, Ekman and his collaborator, Wallace Friesen, had been sorting through the footage, cutting extraneous scenes, focusing just on close-ups of the faces of the tribesmen, in order to compare the facial expressions of the two groups. Ekman set up the camera. Tomkins sat in the back. He had been told nothing about the tribes involved; all identifying context had been edited out. Tomkins looked on intently, peering through his glasses. At the end, he went up to the screen and pointed to the faces of the South Fore. "These are a sweet, gentle people, very indulgent, very peaceful," he said. Then he pointed to the faces of the Kukukuku. "This other group is violent, and there is lots of evidence to suggest homosexuality." Even today, a third of a century later, Ekman cannot get over what Tomkins did. "My God! I vividly remember saying, "Silvan, how on earth are you doing that?" Ekman recalls. "And he went up to the screen and, while we played the film backward, in slow motion, he pointed out the particular bulges and wrinkles in the face that he was using to make his judgment. That's when I realized, 'I've got to unpack the face.' It was a gold mine of information that everyone had ignored. This guy could see it, and if he could see it, maybe everyone else could, too."
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