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Read People's Thoughts Just by Looking at Them
August 20, 2002 12:00 PM   Subscribe

Read People's Thoughts Just by Looking at Them

A wild claim, but a very interesting article.
posted by Irontom (40 comments total)

 
If only someone could invent a way to read people's thoughts without having to look at them. On a blue background.
posted by luser at 12:04 PM on August 20, 2002


I don't think it's wild at all. Desmond Morris has an excellent book called Manwatching (a prequel of sorts to his more popular, slimmer volumes Dogwatching and Catwatching). It's all about the evolution of expressiveness in the human face, and the simple gestures in which we indulge -- which are both broadly similar and culturally distinctive. Simple things such as posture will show whether a person considers his companion an equal, a superior, or an inferior.
posted by dhartung at 12:17 PM on August 20, 2002


And how do you propose we look at people's thoughts in order to read them?
posted by ODiV at 12:19 PM on August 20, 2002


If only someone could invent a way to read people's thoughts without having to look at them. On a blue background.

And how do you propose we look at people's thoughts in order to read them?

without having to look at the people. Oh, we have it, Metafilter. And it even has a blue background.

I'm going to need to stop cracking wise around here.
posted by luser at 12:26 PM on August 20, 2002


I read this when it first appeared in the New Yorker (the magazine of choice for foppish young men like myself) and though interesting, I found it more alarming than anything else.

The whole thing smacks of that long debunked "science" called phrenology.
posted by aladfar at 12:35 PM on August 20, 2002


as an actor, this stuff fascinates me. studying the various 'action units' and being able to recall them at will could make for a very convincing performance.

and i don't see a parallel with phrenology, which is about the shape of your head. this is about the unconscious mind.
posted by o2b at 12:42 PM on August 20, 2002


It sounds fundamentally different from phrenology, as it seems to indicate a similarity between behaviour regardless of race or class. Phrenology was more or less created to suit an existing colonial preconception; science to rationalize prejudice.

I liked the article. Here, by the way, are the first two chapters of the FACS manual, for those who are interested. It looks like the full thing (which I wouldn't mind going through) is $260 American.
posted by Hildago at 12:43 PM on August 20, 2002


How to write a Gladwell piece:

1. Take a complex human phenomenon say, social networking, human facial expressions, mating preferences, rumor-mongering etc.

2. Forcefully apply, like a hammer, broad categorizations. Give these categorizations cool names like 'Seekers','Telephone Operators','Poster Boys','Superstars' etc.

3. Don't forget to point out that some members of the population (not you) are instinctively good at this. Profile them in the article and point out their special gift.

4. At this point you will realize that the exceptions to your rules (see #2) are greater than those than can be neatly categorized. That is the number of false positives introduces gross statistical errors which may make this an impractical science. This is to be expected given that humans are stupefyingly complex and their behaviors can probably not be distilled into an 8-page article.
But, what the hey, you've got a deadline.
posted by vacapinta at 12:50 PM on August 20, 2002


You forgot:

5. Pad with anecdotes and pitch as a book deal.
posted by briank at 12:53 PM on August 20, 2002


Interesting piece. I'm going to be staring into my friends' faces real close for the rest of the week.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:54 PM on August 20, 2002


1. Post a fascinating article.

2. Wait for the snarkiness.

3. Roll eyes.
posted by goethean at 12:55 PM on August 20, 2002


I really like the idea that these two guys got paid to sit across from each other and make faces.

"So, what did you do at work today, honey?"
*Smiles, frowns, makes "oooh, what stinks?" face*
posted by ColdChef at 12:55 PM on August 20, 2002


My read of this suggests that it's less about mind reading and more about lie detection (i realize that it's picking nits, but...).

i would also argue that there is more empirical evidence to suggest the legitimacy of this than something like phrenology which never really had any hard science to back it up.

[also, upon preview: ColdChef rocks.]
posted by quin at 12:59 PM on August 20, 2002


I thought the article was fascinating.

It made me think of David Westerfield's facial expressions throughout the Danielle Van Dam murder trial. In every photo I saw of him, he looked inappropriate--as if he was on the verge of smirking. I always wondered why none of the TV commentators ever remarked on it and why his attorney didn't tell him to cut it out.
posted by mariko at 1:02 PM on August 20, 2002


Can you imagine being married to one of these people? "Don't you use that microexpression with me! You know I can't stand it when you do A.U. 27."

Seriously though, I did think it was interesting. Even if there's probably a limit to how much of this you would want to be tuned into.
posted by gottabefunky at 1:07 PM on August 20, 2002


Also...can you imagine these guys at the office poker game?

"You're bluffing, Carl... A547."

"Well, no shit, Doug. By the way, I banged your wife. Look at my face...no B87s at all.
posted by ColdChef at 1:21 PM on August 20, 2002


I wonder if there's a facial expressions Life List, like in bird-watching. Only the luckiest of observers will ever witness a genuine AU 4+13+38+7+8 in its natural habitat.
posted by Hildago at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2002


ColdChef: LOL

"You know I can't say no when you flex your levator palpebrae superioris like that..."
posted by gottabefunky at 1:40 PM on August 20, 2002


A lot of times I just "know" things that turn out to be true, and I usually chalk it up to intuition, especially when there doesn't SEEM to be any reason why I DO know these things. (Some things I WISH I knew and guess at - 50/50 - LOL - not something I can force at will yet) In those cases, I think there MIGHT be some kind of physical clues that tip me off, whether it's a facial expression, gesture, or even the words a person uses if online. I don't know however, if these clues would be completely universally applicable, or if the clues would be more personal or a case by case basis. Interesting article anyway, thanks.
posted by thunder at 1:42 PM on August 20, 2002


Now there are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give him away. A guy has seventeen pantomimes. A woman's got twenty, but a guy's got seventeen. And if you know 'em like ya know your own face, they beat lie detectors to hell.
posted by roboto at 2:13 PM on August 20, 2002


i found the article very thought provoking and no doubt useful in many ways, but i can't agree with someone taking action based solely on information which they feel they gleaned from someone's facial expressions. i'm not sure if anyone else read the article to the very end, but that is precisely what happens at the end.
But at the time all Harms had was a hunch, a sense from the situation and the man's behavior and what he glimpsed inside the man's coat and on the man's face - ... Harms pulled out his gun and shot the man through the open window. "Scott looked at me and was, like, "What did you do?' because he didn't perceive any danger," Harms said. "But I did."
posted by alicila at 2:15 PM on August 20, 2002


I keep thinking back to the famous film experiments conducted by Lev Kuleshov back during the golden age of Soviet Film. Kuleshov would (for example) film a static shot of an actor with almost no expression. He essentially told the actor to just stand there -- there was no context, no motivation, no nothing ... just the actor looking off to one side. Then he'd splice that together with baby crying in a crib -- and people he showed it to thought "My, what deep concern this fellow shows for that child." Then, he take the same shot and splice it with a shot of people having a picnic. Again, the audience would sigh: "Oh, what longing, what deep lonliness that guy portrays."

In short -- I remain sceptical.
posted by RavinDave at 2:18 PM on August 20, 2002


I don't about you - but that article makes me feel really serene. ;- [
posted by BinkyF at 2:45 PM on August 20, 2002


Time to start walking around with a paper bag on my head..
posted by slipperywhenwet at 2:56 PM on August 20, 2002


roboto: You're a canteloupe.
posted by bingo at 3:39 PM on August 20, 2002


alicila, would you also state that Yarbrough was a fool for not shooting the kid in South Central? Without gleaning information from the kid's facial expression, Yarbrough would have shot that kid dead on the spot. So yay for gleaning information from someone's facial expression. As for Harms' story, honestly, if a man in drag is tromping through shit straight towards your car and he reaches into his trench coat as he says, "I've got something to show you," and you notice by his facial expression that he's crazier than a shithouse rat and is about to do something violent, and all the while you've got a gun but don't shoot him, then you deserve to be made nice and toasty by the flamethrower he produces a split second later. Perhaps "deserve" isn't the right word, but the fact is you'll be too busy rolling around on the ground trying to put out the flames to determine whether you "deserved" it, or whether you're just having a bad fucking day.

Ravindave- an audience's tendency to assign emotion to an actor's face based on circumstantial accompanying footage has aided many a career in Hollywood, no? But that's no reason to disregard proper evidence of involuntary facial muscle contraction that reveals a true inner monologue in everyday life.

o2b - an actor who could master all the facial expressions could indeed give a very convincing performance. But it's much easier to put yourself in the moment and let the facial expressions come on their own as a result of your truthful inner emotions. Some would disagree, but IMO the conveying of emotion through involuntary facial expression, gesturing, and/or posturing is the key to an actor's art.
posted by David Dark at 3:40 PM on August 20, 2002


bingo - actually, he's an eggplant. Part eggplant. You're a canteloupe.
posted by David Dark at 3:45 PM on August 20, 2002


Without gleaning information from the kid's facial expression, Yarbrough would have shot that kid dead on the spot

Thats a presumption.

I dont doubt that some of us have more finely tuned instincts than others. But was Yarbrough reacting merely to facial expressions or also to overall body movements or to smell or to some other not so easily quantifiable "vibe" that he got in the situation? I doubt even Yarbrough really knows since its instinctive.

I guess thats my objection - that this can be quantified into some library of facial expressions. As RavinDave pointed out, subliminal cues and context is everything.
posted by vacapinta at 3:54 PM on August 20, 2002


Of course it's a presumption, if you define presumption like the dictionary does, as in "acceptance or belief based on reasonable evidence." The reasonable evidence in this case being that cops are trained to shoot people who jump out of cars and point guns at them.

In the article, Yarbrough said, "If you looked at it logically, I should have shot him." I presumed he was telling the truth, but who can tell when you can't see his face! :)

Yarbrough then watched the psychologists' tapes and was tested on who was lying vs. who was telling the truth, and he scored off the charts? Hmmmm. I'm pretty sure we can eliminate smell, unless by watching a videotape, you can smell if someone's lying? That would be talent. Or, can you imagine? "We've discovered that some people are instinctively better at detecting lies vs. truth by some not so easily quantifiable "vibe" that they get in the situation! Eureka!
posted by David Dark at 5:14 PM on August 20, 2002


I remember watching an interview with Hillary Clinton back in '92. She constantly shook her head "no" while making positive statements. It was really weird.

Since then, I've noticed a lot of people doing that - politicians, especially, and I wonder why their handlers don't advise them to quit. But maybe most people, as the article asserts, listen to the words rather than watching the body language.

This is the kind of research that ultimately advances our knowledge of our humanity. Interesting article - good post, Irontom.
posted by acridrabbit at 5:15 PM on August 20, 2002


First of all its late and I must say I did not read the whole article or everyones comments, but the start of the article is worthless. Anyone who has studied statistics would tell you even by pure chance some people would score "off the charts". Its just the nature of probability. As Donald Knuth once said (this is actually hearsay) if your random number generator never generates a 1000 zeros in a row then it is a very poor random number generator. i.e. One should expect that some person(s) would be off the charts even if they guessed and did not even see or hear the videos.

Sorry, about the rant, but I hate to see stuff pushed off as science/proof when there can be a much more reasonable explanation.

The worse part of this is the writer might even have a point, but when s/he starts with such a lame story I find it difficult to finish reading what they are saying.

So tell me mefiers is the rest of the article this lame or if I muddle through the 'bs' can I actually find something worthwhile.
posted by tallpaul at 11:43 PM on August 20, 2002


But the most import question remains open to speculation. Do you need to do the eyeroll to get a bj from a fat intern?
posted by ouke at 7:11 AM on August 21, 2002


Here's someone who appears to have the same talent, but uses it for entertainment! David Blaine eat your heart out!
posted by BobsterLobster at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2002


ouke: wtf?

Are you so fixated on Clinton that you feel compelled to inject a cheap shot no matter how far removed it is from the subject being discussed? (Acridrabbit brought up Hillary, but at least had an actual observation to justify it.) I'm sure a more appropriate thread will come along several times daily.

Sheesh ... Welcome to MetaFark.
posted by RavinDave at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2002


DavidDark, to answer your questions...

alicila, would you also state that Yarbrough was a fool for not shooting the kid in South Central?
no. i wasn't there and i can't say what the police officer should or shouldn't have done.

As for Harms' story, honestly, if a man in drag is tromping through shit straight towards your car and he reaches into his trench coat as he says, "I've got something to show you," and you notice by his facial expression that he's crazier than a shithouse rat and is about to do something violent, and all the while you've got a gun but don't shoot him, then you deserve to be made nice and toasty by the flamethrower he produces a split second later. Perhaps "deserve" isn't the right word, but the fact is you'll be too busy rolling around on the ground trying to put out the flames to determine whether you "deserved" it, or whether you're just having a bad fucking day.
actually, if harm's felt something was out of order based on the guy's facial expression, he could have been drawn and ready to shoot and the moment he SAW the flame thrower, it would be 100% acceptable for him to shoot the guy. to just shoot someone based upon someone's facial expression or even to shoot someone based on a gut feeling is completely irresponsible police work and illegal. there is more than one reason someone might walk through a pool of crap with a crazed expression on their face and say, "I've got something to show you."
if it were acceptable for police to start shooting people based solely on what they think someone elses facial expression indicates, then police could start shooting anyone for any reason and say, "well, he looked like a crazy and i was sure he had a gun because he had that i've-got-a-gun look in his eye."

i'm not saying that reading facial expressions isn't helpful, i'm just saying it's not always reliable to draw a conclusion from a facial expression. it's especially not a reliable way of deciding whether or not you should shoot someone.
posted by alicila at 10:00 AM on August 21, 2002


i wasn't there and i can't say what the police officer should or shouldn't have done.

apply this to both cases equally and you've got it.

the moment he SAW the flame thrower, it would be 100% acceptable for him to shoot the guy.

article: But at the time all Harms had was a hunch, a sense from the situation and the man's behavior and what he glimpsed inside the man's coat and on the man's face— something that was the opposite of whatever John Yarbrough saw in the face of the boy in Willowbrook.

Man said he caught a glimpse of the weapon. So now, by your own admission, he was in the right. Case closed.
posted by David Dark at 12:54 PM on August 21, 2002


read my lips: BOTOX
posted by jellybuzz at 1:54 PM on August 21, 2002


RavinDave - there was a reference to Clinton's eyeball-rolling halfway through the article. A few hours of instruction on facial movements, and he could have saved us from years of intern jokes.
posted by rory at 2:11 PM on August 21, 2002


Profuse apologies to ouke and the same amount of thanx to rory. Bad day ...
posted by RavinDave at 2:22 PM on August 21, 2002


RavinDave: No problem. I had a bad day too. I just can't get over it that this theory suggests that if you change the look on your face you wil behave accordingly. I tried to look happy while doing the vacuuming yesterday and the wife said: "So, do I know her?" And rory, thanks for covering my ass.
posted by ouke at 3:50 AM on August 22, 2002


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