Facial Recognition and Understanding Emotional Expressions

copy-3-of-01_intellicultureWhen you recognize a friend’s face, how do you know? Do you make a careful study of their nose and cheekbones? Are you thrown off if they don’t wear the usual expression?

The vast majority of people probably scoffed at those questions. Facial recognition isn’t a matter of careful study, but instead it is an instantaneous process. Your brain just knows whose face you are seeing. As Tim Newman pointed out in Medical News Today, this underscores how incredible the process of facial recognition is, given the complexity of and similarities between the thousands of faces we see on a regular basis.

Not only is facial recognition itself a remarkable ability, but it is closely tied with crucial cognitive functions.

Facial recognition is a key part of understanding emotional expressions. Humans use facial recognition skills to detect deviations from normal or prototypical expressions. This process involves noticing when brows are furrowed or eyes are squinted, instantly comparing those expressions with what is expected upon seeing a face.

Because the recognition of a face is instantaneous, it is only a small cognitive step towards noticing when the face appears differently than expected, and this difference is then analyzed as displaying a certain emotion.

The ability to perceive emotions in this fashion appears to be a basic human feature. The same sort of basic human expressions, such as anger, revulsion, and sadness are found across the world, from Japan to Borneo to the United States. Even emotions displayed in ancient cave paintings show similar expressions!

Similarly, by recognizing faces in this sense, humans also make quick judgments as to the attractiveness of an unfamiliar face. They may often be unable to explain why a face seems attractive or not, just as we are unable to describe exactly how we recognize familiar faces or emotions. We immediately process many factors, including facial symmetry, to develop these impressions.

In fact, the ability to recognize and process faces in this fashion is deeply rooted in our species. Human babies can even differentiate between human and, for example, gorilla faces at an incredibly early age. While 3-month olds can tell human and gorilla bodies apart, even newborn babies can distinguish faces.

And it isn’t just humans! Other primates have a similar ability. Chimpanzees, who have the most similar recognition skills to humans, quickly identify familiar faces, and they can even distinguish familiar family characteristics in unfamiliar faces. This is similar to when we meet someone and notice that they look like a cousin or a sibling.

Understanding this incredible ability has many practical implications, even if they may not seem immediately obvious. Most intuitively, the ability to recognize faces is important for law enforcement work and eyewitness testimony. Witnesses must be able to correctly recognize the faces of criminal suspects, and law enforcement officers must recognize faces from security footage or photo IDs.

These important applications are complicated by the fact that people range considerably in their ability to recognize faces.

Some individuals, called super-recognizers, are incredibly good at matching unfamiliar faces, and they mark the high end of a spectrum that includes all levels of ability. This also includes those suffering from face-blindness, or prosopagnosia. These individuals are not only unable to match unfamiliar faces but can be unable to recognize close friends of family members. Instead, they must rely on other cues, like voices or hair color.

Brad Duchaine, who studies facial recognition at Dartmouth College, wrote in 2015 about the impact that these variations have on law enforcement practices. If a witness cannot successfully recognize faces or mistakenly identifies the defendant, their testimony will be severely compromised. Similarly, if law enforcement officials have trouble recognizing faces, they may be unable to complete basic tasks like ensuring that a photo ID matches its owner.

Facial recognition is a critical part of human interaction, comprising the ability to notice emotions of facial similarities, but it is a skill like many others. While some people are naturally better at it, it is something that can be taught and better understood.

For more information about universal emotions, see our article on the Seven Basic Emotions, and click here to find out how you can strengthen this skill.

Reading Past the Words During a Presidential Debate

president-debate-trump-clinton-2016Who are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump really?

The second presidential debate was held last night. After watching the first presidential debate on September 26, Humintell’s own Dr. David Matsumoto offered his expert opinion on how each candidate’s mannerisms could be perceived by voters.

He urged us to imagine watching these debates without sound, stripping away the policy discussions, the jokes, and the not so subtle jabs. How would the candidates appear then? Would you change your preference based on what you saw?

Believe it or not, but you are watching it that way, even if you don’t realize it. As we watch these debates, we are picking up on mannerisms, gestures, and body language that we might not even consciously notice.

Anybody watching Trump can pick up on some of his not-so-subtle behavior, as he frequently looked away from his opponent and repeatedly rolled his eyes. While many voters may accuse Trump of rudeness, this sort of unmoderated behavior gave off what Dr. Matsumoto called a “perception of genuineness.” Trump was not hiding his feelings, even his impatience. Instead, there was no question that he was a human with emotions, just like everybody else.

Clinton, on the other hand, presented a much more controlled but standoffish persona. Clinton rarely allowed her expression to change as she reacted to her opponent or the moderator’s questions. For example, she maintained almost the same “pasted expression” throughout the evening: presenting an asymmetrical smile with pursed lips. Many voters likely interpreted that as a self-satisfied or arrogant smirk. She also regularly laughed off responses, feeding into this perception of arrogance.

While the notion that Trump seemed genuine and Clinton seemed standoffish may sound like Trump came out of the debate ahead, this may not actually be the case. In fact, Dr. Matsumoto predicted that Clinton’s performance could lead many voters to envision her as a calm president who would be “above immediate, transient reactions on the spur of the moment.” These same people would then view Trump as being impulsive or unreliable. However, those that picked up on Trump’s genuine displays of emotion may get the impression that he could relate to everyday Americans in a way that the out of touch Clinton could not.

Dr. Matsumoto also focused on what may have seemed like a very minor exchange to many viewers. At one point during the debate, Clinton was asked if she would support the outcome of the election and the will of the people. Her response was to initially shrug before insisting that she would. While this was probably unintentional, these sort of unintentional gestures are often very meaningful. “A shoulder shrug raises doubts about the credibility of what she’s saying,” Dr. Matsumoto explained, and could easily be “interpreted as doubt or uncertainty.”

It is interesting to see how these impressions fit with public perception of both candidates. In April, the leading polling service Gallup reported that the public had already developed pretty firm impressions of the candidates’ personalities. Trump was perceived as caring very little about the common people, while Clinton was seen as highly prepared and analytical. The latter impression was certainly supported by a cold, standoffish demeanor during the debate, but it remains to be seen if Trump can manage to convince voters that he is genuine and caring.

This article was paraphrased from a previous interview with Dr. Matsumoto. For the original interview and further commentary on political body language visit Douglas Quan’s National Post article.

For some information on detecting deception in politics, listen to this NPR story or follow Dr. Matsumoto’s blog series: “Politics and Deception.”

How To Make A Tough (And Emotional) Decision

girl-1064659_1280By Samantha Harrington for Forbes

A month ago, my teammate and I made a really difficult decision while very emotional. Or maybe we made the decision and then got sad. Either way, from the outside it would have looked like fodder for all the Twitter trolls who say women can’t lead because they’re “too emotional.” They’d be wrong.

Looking back, a month removed from the moment we decided to pivot our business strategy, I’m grateful that we didn’t stop up the tear ducts and make a cold, emotionless decision.

But there’s a lot of debate in both psychology and business about the most effective role of emotion in decision making.

A study out of Carnegie Mellon found that when sad, people are willing to pay more money for things and sell things for less money than when their emotions were baseline. The researchers supplied participants with a pack of highlighters, induced different emotions and asked how much participants would sell or buy the highlighters for. The study found that people were willing to pay $1.98 more than at baseline emotion for the highlighters when sad and listed a selling price $2.95 less when sad.

Another study, this one from professors at Case Western, replicated risk by asking participants to choose between two different lottery options– one with a 70% of chance of winning a $2 prize and one with a $25 prize but only a 2% of chance of winning. They manipulated participant’s moods and tracked the lottery choices they preferred. Researchers found that anger and embarrassment led to an increase in risky decisions.

But historically, no major progress has come from a place of apathy and I certainly have made some of the best decisions in my business when I passionate.

So instead of trying to make decisions devoid of emotion, I’m trying to figure out how to best leverage those emotions and the data and facts my business collects to make the most effective decisions.

So here are three tools that I rely on to maintain logical integrity in decisions while keeping my heart in them. They even are effective in checking your emotions that come from outside of work.

  1. Rely on your team: The biggest and simplest way that I check my decision making is by never making solo decisions. That’s the beauty of having a team around you. I can’t imagine how difficult decision making must be for solo founders. When my team is making any decision, much less a major one, we rarely find an immediate consensus. The process of getting to that point — defending your position and understanding other’s perspectives — always keeps us from making a decision that’s not based on evidence.
  2. Take your time: If you have the luxury of time, don’t make a decision that you immediately set into action. Give yourself a couple of days, give yourself a week if you have it, and think about what you’ve decided and why. And if a few days later you think you made the wrong decision, then don’t hesitate to tell your team. Which also brings up the point: do not wait until the last minute to make a major decision.
  3. Get an outside opinion: as essential as it is that your team get on the same page, it’s equally important to turn to a mentor who is removed from the day-to-day of your company. They’ll be able to give you a fresh perspective that’s not clouded by an emotional connection to your work. My team called a former boss of ours (thanks for always answering the phone, John Clark) and started out by saying, “We just need to make sure we’re not making a really dumb decision.” Talking it through with him and explaining out loud how we’d gotten to the decision made us confident in the direction we were taking our company.

Here’s the thing, even if you want to, it’s really difficult to remove your emotions from your decisions. A group of psychologists from top U.S. universities concluded in a 2014 study that, “emotions constitute powerful and predictable drivers of decision making.”

So everyone, and yes Twitter trolls this applies to you too, is making decisions imbued with their personal emotions. And that’s okay. Just make sure that you’re being careful to check that those emotional decisions are also logical.


For more on emotions and how they affect critical thinking, visit this past blog post

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