Olympic-Level Emotions

(L-R) Silver medalist US Chris Mazdzer, gold medalist Austria’s David Gleirscher, and bronze medalist Germany’s Johannes Ludwig pose on the podium during the victory ceremony in the men’s luge singles during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, at the Olympic Sliding Centre on February 11, 2018 in Pyeongchang. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Can the Olympics teach us anything about reading people?

Most of these blogs have been devoted to reading people’s emotions when they are being actively concealed, such as during efforts to detect deception. However, the Winter Olympics give us an opportunity to read people exhibiting unfiltered, raw emotions. With emotions as high as they are during the Games, few people would attempt to conceal their emotions, even if they weren’t so physically exhausted!

Instead of having to work to decipher microexpressions, Dr. David Matsumoto’s experience as an Olympic coach has given him unique insight into the way Olympians express emotions. Of course, because microexpressions are really just shorter macroexpressions, these blatant cases give us something to look for in more fleeting situations.

For example, after examining photos from top competitors in the 2004 Olympic Games, Dr. Matsumoto observed that the winners almost all sported pronounced, genuine smiles. He referred to these as the Duchenne smile, and the genuine nature of the setting showcases these as truly prototypical expressions of happiness.

These involved: “smiles that involve not only the smiling muscle that pulls the lip corners up but also the muscle around the eyes, which lifts the cheeks, narrow the eyelids and produces crow’s feet wrinkles.”

Similarly, this same investigation looked at the microexpressions present in athletes just following the end of the match. Immediately after victory, an athlete would show a fleeting expression of pure, unadulterated triumph, regardless of what culture they were from. Similarly, a defeated athlete exhibited consistently sad microexpressions.

The prevalence and universality of these expressions helped establish the universal nature of these emotions. However, they are not necessarily innate expressions. How could Dr. Matsumoto rule out the possibility that this behavior is simply learned from watching other athletes?

The answer to this question came when he decided to examine a series of blind judo athletes during the 2004 Paralympic Games. Certainly athletes that are blind from birth could not have learned a purely visual emotional cue!

In fact, their facial expressions were indistinguishable from the respectively triumphant or defeated expressions of sighted athletes. This was also the case for their genuine, Duchenne, smiles upon receipt of medals. These results suggest that victory or defeat in the Olympic games brings out our innate and universal expressions, and these are the same sort of basic expressions that we have delved into throughout this blog.

You might find all this interesting but still aren’t sure how this is relevant to anything. Well, all of these expressions, both in macro or micro form, are keys to effectively reading people. By looking at situations where the expression is as blatant as after an Olympic match, you can better learn how to read those expressions during more subtle and deception-based situations.

Also, with this knowledge in hand, go out and watch the Olympics! Can you spot these expressions? Trying actual applications like this can make you a better people reader, and we are excited to offer some more observations in next week’s blog!

The Challenges of Cross Cultural Communication

You may be great about reading some people, but there are still a lot of people whose distinct outlook and culture may elude you.

One of the most important parts of learning how to read people is accepting that this process varies considerably across different cultures, despite the presence of universal basic emotions. In a recent study, Humintell’s Drs. David Matsumoto and Hyisung Hwang seek to investigate the main methodological barriers that confront those of us who want to learn to accurately read the facial expressions of those outside our own culture.

Hopefully, by better understanding these challenges future research can be effectively guided to help all of us fine tune our emotional recognition skills. But how do you as a follower of this blog gain anything from this? Try keeping these points in mind as you read future articles or peruse previous blogs and see if any of these hold for the research that we have reported. Not only will this make all of us a better scholar, but it will enrich your own abilities to read people.

The first of these methodological critiques is the way in which actual experiments are conducted. While Matsumoto and Hwang applaud the efforts of researchers to point out similarities and differences between those of various cultures, they caution us against jumping to any conclusions about the source of any differences.

Many differences, they point out, are just the result of the specific group selected and need not be reflective of an entire culture. This may be especially true in culturally diverse nations or regions where people who live just down the street approach the world from different cultural or social backgrounds.

Their second point is similar in focusing on the potentially biased nature of sampling, i.e. who is brought into the study. Often these experiments are conducted on international students at a university, where they are taken as representative of their home culture. Certainly, this can be seen as flawed as these participants may not be reflective of that culture, either due to a similar flaw as in the last critique or because of their more specific nature as an international student.

In a third argument, Matsumoto and Hwang make a point relevant to all aspects of emotional recognition, namely that many facial expressions also closely resemble other purposeful nonverbal behavior. For instance, raised eyebrows may be a sign of surprise, or it may be a gesture indicating greeting. This problem is even more relevant to cross cultural communication where gestures vary drastically between groups and may not be known to the researcher.

Finally, they question the traditionally bounded nature of many of the questions asked. We may want to test what factors lead to successful emotional recognition, but what exactly does recognition consist of? In doing research, this has to get simplified in order to test it, but especially with complex cross cultural considerations, this simplification may obscure the very real complexities.

This last point is especially salient when conducting advanced statistical analyses. While these are certainly useful, Matsumoto and Hwang also caution that it may be best to ask participants more open-ended questions.

Many of these points reflect broader methodological problems in other fields of social science, and they are not easy to wrestle with. However, they are important to keep in mind both for researchers and people like yourself that are just trying to learn about these fascinating topics.

We definitely recommend that you use these to review other research an, in the meantime, check out some of our official resources on cross-cultural communication! Maybe you’ll develop your own method-based critiques.

The Length of a Microexpression

What exactly are microexpressions?

While we certainly know how important microexpressions are in reading other people, there are still a great deal of outstanding questions. One of these concerns the very nature of a microexpression: how long do they last? This is an important question in better understanding to what extent they are categorically different from normal expressions.

This was exactly what Dr. Xunbing Shen and his team sought to determine in a 2016 study. They suspected that the process of recognizing a short (less than 200 milliseconds) and a long (greater than 200 milliseconds) expression were distinctive neurological processes. Therefore, they hypothesized that this distinction was also what could distinguish microexpressions from normal, macroexpressions.

Importantly, the researchers employed an “affective priming paradigm,” which utilized a picture of a facial expression to prime an associated emotional word. This attempts to elicit distinctive brain responses when there is a mismatch between word and expression, in this case seeking to hold a microscope up to differing reactions to micro and macroexpressions.

In order to answer their hypothesis, Dr. Shen’s team compiled a small team of volunteers. These participants were shown a series of images showcasing 30 different expressions, displaying either fear, happiness, or a neutral expression, alongside a related series of 100 emotionally significant words.

The series of faces were paired with words, some of which matching the emotion expressed and some of which not. Moreover, the exposure to faces was varied from 40 to 300 milliseconds, in order to test the impact of fleeting microexpressions. During this process, brain scans recorded activity that occurred as participants attempted to identify the emotions expressed.

After completing the experiment, Dr. Shen and his team compared brain activity during both long and short duration expressions. They found significant differences, with the brain’s left hemisphere more active while perceiving microexpressions, for example.

While these results may seem strange, given that expressions are the same regardless of the duration. The study concludes by offering some possible explanations. Essentially, it takes more attention to perceive a shorter expression. This may be because mimicry is crucial to detecting expressions, and this is hard to do quickly. Instead, participants were forced to tap into their memory in hopes of identifying the expression that way.

There are certainly still some unanswered questions, but this work helps further distinguish the process of expression recognition. It is not just a matter of recognizing fleeting variants of normal expressions, as microexpression recognition is a wholly distinctive neurological process.

Naturally, Humintell is pretty excited at the multitude of directions that exist to study microexpressions. If you share this enthusiasm, check out some more information or consider enrolling in a relevant training class!

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