Scientific American Mind on Paul Ekman and microexpressions

The new issue of Scientific American Mind profiles the work of Paul Ekman, a psychologist best known for reading people's faces by watching for the most subtle "microexpressions" that flash by. (Ekman was a student of Silvan Tomkins who featured prominently in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink.) Ekman famously cataloged the thousands of possible combinations of facial muscles positions that form expressions. The resulting techniques he developed to read microexpressions are outlined in several of his popular books, including Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, and Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. From the Scientific American Mind article:

Ekman, 72, lives in Oakland, Calif., in a bright and airy house near the bay. As I talked with him there, he studied me, his eyes peering out from under bushy brows as if they were registering each brief facial tic I unknowingly exhibited. Does his talent make him a mind reader? "No," he says candidly. "The most I can do is tell how you are feeling at the moment but not what you are thinking." He is not being modest or coy; he is simply addressing the psychological bottom line behind facial expressions: "Anxiety always looks like anxiety," he explains, "regardless of whether a person fears that I'm seeing through their lie or that I don't believe them when they're telling the truth."

The professor calls the ever present risk we all take of misreading a person's visage "Othello's error." In Shakespeare's drama, Othello misinterprets the fear in his wife Desdemona's face as a sign of her supposed infidelity. In truth, the poor woman is genuinely alarmed at her husband's unjust, jealous rage. Othello's subsequent decision to kill Desdemona is a fatal error, and Ekman wants to make sure that police, security personnel and secret service agents do not make the same mistake. "Arresting the guilty is a good thing," he acknowledges, "but decreasing the number of innocent people who are falsely accused is just as important." His system for understanding the emotions that faces portray, and his expertise in applying it, could help all kinds of law-enforcement and legal personnel in their work. It could also help the rest of us better negotiate how our family members, friends and colleagues really feel.

Link (via Mind Hacks)