A Picture Speaks ONLY a Thousand Words!

Is a picture really worth a thousand words?  What exactly can a picture tell you about someone’s character?  When trying to detect deception, one has to be very careful to not interpret the wrong information or misread pertinent nonverbal signals of deception such as microexpressions.

Many people may have heard of David Loughner.  He has been identified as the gunman that recently killed six people and seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.

An article, “Behind Loughner’s million-mile stare” comments on the disturbing picture Loughner (shown left) taken at Pima County’s Sherriff’s Forensic Department.

It is clear from his actions on that fateful day that Loughner has psychological problems to say the least.  However, judging a person based solely on a photograph is very risky.  There are many elements at play in a still frame of a person’s face.  Just because someone looks like a “monster” for a moment in time does not necessarily make them a monster.

Dr. Alan Hirsch, a Chicago-based neurologist and psychiatrist commented that the fact that we’ve come to associate that look [wide eyes, exposed whites of eyes and eyelids higher than normal] with monstrous acts has more to do with Hollywood than psychiatry. “In movies, the person who’s psychologically deranged will have bulging eyes,” he says. “That’s how they portray the evil person…”

Hirsch goes on to state that when we make judgments about someone’s character based on their looks is something called metoposcopy. “That’s the idea or concept that you can tell a person’s character based on the way their face looks,” he explains.  “And we can misinterpret things. We’ll see someone whose eyes are bulging, but they’ll have hyperthyroidism.”

Dr. Matsumoto also stresses that microexpressions can be as fast as 1/15th of a second and represented in a photo may only reveal the beginning or end of a person’s emotional state.

Dr. Dan Iosifescu, associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine exemplifies Dr. Matsumoto’s views on whether a photograph is a reliable document.

Dr. Iosifescu affirms, “I don’t think you can make too much out a single photograph…It could be bravado, someone who’s trying to play a game. In most animals, including humans, this kind of fixed-eye contact is a sign of aggression. But it could also be the attitude of someone who feels cornered in the police department but is trying to appear otherwise. It could be a show that he’s putting on.”

See the video below for Dr. Matsumoto’s detailed response to the question; can a photograph serve as a reliable document? He answers the question about 13 minutes into the clip.

2 responses to “A Picture Speaks ONLY a Thousand Words!”

  1. Keith D. says:

    I’m wondering how much science there is behind this sort of thing. I’m reminded of the long-discredited “science” of phrenology over a century ago, which after looking up metoposcopy, looks like it’s very similar to phrenology in that it’s more a form of divination or at best a pseudo-science etc.

    But on the other side of the coin, you have truth wizards who do seem to have a keen ability to read character traits from a person purely from a video or a few photos. Their accuracy rating would seem to indicate that there is likely *something* that can reliably correlate the way a person looks to their personality.

    So where does the actual science and research lie on this subject? While I seriously doubt there’s any credible research to back up things like phrenology or metoposcopy, what science, if any, is there regarding some people’s apparent ability to discern what personality traits someone likely has from a photo?

  2. Dear Keith,
    You are right in that phrenology is not a real science for many reasons (head injuries etc). However,
    reading characteristic traits from a video is a completely different thing than trying to discern such infromation from a still image (i.e. picture). Dr. Matsumoto clearly comments on this in the video. Also, note Dr. Matsumoto’s comment earlier in the video (around 9-10 minutes in) about wrinkle patterns on a person’s face as they get older reflecting their habitual use of their faces in emotional expressions. Note: He does state that this is a controversial issue.

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