Ambiguity in Facial Expressions

How good are you at detecting emotions?

Followers of this blog have by now read extensively about basic emotions and the many characteristic features present in each. Perhaps this has made emotional recognition seem pretty simple. All we have to do is look at the lips, eyebrows, and other facial features, and we can conclude that someone is angry or sad, right?

Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. Our brains do not deduce emotional states so rigorously (though they can be trained to!). Instead, we come to an immediate intuition as to another person’s expression from a broad interpretation of their overall facial features.

Moreover, we are often not very good at recognizing expressions. Untrained individuals generally have a difficult time identifying facial expressions, relying instead on feelings of empathy to come to understand other people.

This discussion is relevant, because not all expressions are even as obvious as our prototypes suggest. Certainly, there are universal basic emotions, such as fear and joy, but are all emotions as clear as being purely one or the other? Instead, many expressions, in reality, are ambiguous or offer subtle differences in intensity.

A recent study from the California Institute of Technology sought to explore these ambiguous expressions by analyzing the role that our brain’s amygdala has in making judgments about ambiguous or intense emotions.

These researchers analyzed brain activity within the amygdala when patients were shown pictures of people expressing fear or happiness, at different levels of intensity. They were also shown neutral or ambiguous emotions. Interestingly, two distinct groups of neurons responded to the facial expressions.

One of these neuron groups would activate intensely when exposed to strong emotions but was more muted during exposure to moderate or subtle expressions. Different neurons within this group correlated with fear and happiness. The other neuron group fired according to perceived ambiguity, regardless of the expression displayed.

The very fact that our amygdala has such an active role in identifying both intensity and ambiguity in emotional recognition helps better understand why emotional recognition can be so difficult. The amygdala is deeply connected with anxiety and fear centers, both of which infamously contribute to failures in recognizing emotions.

Study co-author Ueli Ruthishauser elaborated, saying “Researchers at multiple institutions are currently evaluating whether deep-brain stimulation of the amygdala is effective in treating severe cases of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

As science continues to unravel the neurological underpinnings behind emotional recognition, we better understand how failures at reading these expressions can be solved and addressed.

In the meantime, check out this blog for more information on challenges to emotional recognition, or work on your own skills with Humintell’s training packages.

Managing Your Emotions in an Interview

Re-published with Permission from Wicklander-Zulawski

By Chris Norris, CFI

Emotions can run the full gamut for both parties involved in an investigative interview. Both the interviewer and the subject may feel the push and pull of a wide range of emotions. From happiness to sadness, fear and surprise, disgust, anger and even contempt, the interview process can produce the ebbs and flows of a full set of emotions one might feel throughout an entire day.

During the course of an interview, skilled investigators can recognize and identify a variety of emotions that might guide the interviewer through the process and help to understand and identify the level of cooperation and authenticity from the subject.

For instance, you might observe moments of surprise from your subject while you are building credibility in your investigation with the WZ Introductory Statement. You may see the emotion of fear and the fear of detection emerge through the many physiological changes the body goes through during fight or flight. You may even recognize emotions that present themselves as your subject approaches a more submissive stage, passing through a phase of resistance, prior to making a rational or emotional decision to be truthful.

Emotions play a huge role during the interview process, but what are emotions after all? Emotions can be described as being thoughts, and behavior reactions to those thoughts, combined to manifest themselves into emotions. Have you ever considered how your emotions may impact the level of cooperation from your subject? For example, your thoughts of growing impatient with your subject’s lack of honesty and your behavior reaction (both verbal and non-verbal) to those thoughts begins to reveal the emotions of frustration, anger or even contempt for your subject. Revealing such emotions does not encourage cooperation.

As an interviewer, managing your own emotions can play an integral part in obtaining the truth from your subject. The difficulty with this task is that emotions are not consciously controlled. The part of the brain that deals with emotions is the limbic system and emotions are believed to be strongly linked to memory and experience. Understanding this link gives you the key to managing your emotional response during an interview. Your emotional response may not have much to do with your current situation, it could be caused by a prior experience. If you are aware of these emotions, you can control them so they don’t have a negative impact on your interview.

One of the most important things you should consider when conducting an interview is remaining objective throughout the entire process and projecting a sense of neutrality to the individual you are interviewing. By keeping your emotions in check and becoming a neutral observer, you place yourself in a position of being non-judgmental to your subject. You become the understanding mediator who is there to help them with the sometimes difficult task of being honest. Nothing you hear should surprise you and someone’s lack of cooperation and honesty shouldn’t frustrate you. Be fully aware of your potential emotional reaction and remain neutral and understanding throughout the entire process.

Another key benefit of maintaining a sense of neutrality during the interview is the process of mirroring. Mirroring is the subconscious replications of another person’s communication signs. If we instinctively imitate gestures, speech and attitudes of one another, imagine how much influence your own emotions might have on your subject. By revealing adverse emotions, like frustration as listed in the example above, the natural process of mirroring may push your subject to feel frustrated or even angry themselves. If you are able to maintain a neutral demeanor during the interview through the process of mirroring, you are likely to have a greater opportunity of keeping your subject’s emotions in check as well.

As an interviewer you should consider your presentation to your subject in terms of posture, facial expressions, illustrators, eye contact, pacing, volume, intonation and actual words, as well as your own emotional balance. Remember, volume invites volume. If you get loud, then they get loud – then you get louder and so on. This becomes non-productive as negative emotions begin to take over the setting and general tone of the interview. Our goal is to de-escalate the negative emotions rather than feed into them with our own emotional missteps.

Controlling your emotions during an interview can be difficult, but remember that those emotions can be the source of the conflict and lack of cooperation from your subject. Recognize your own emotions, understand the source of the emotional reaction, manage them and assess their impact on your subject. Get to know your emotions and your emotional patterns. If you can develop skills and self-discipline in managing emotions you can become a more effective communicator and interviewer.

For more on body language and job interviews, view some of our past blogs:

6 Steps to Effective Interview Body Language

9 Ways Your Body Language Can Help You Land a Job

The Struggle For Emotional Recognition

Emotional and facial expression recognition are particularly interesting phenomena. Not only are they both incredibly fundamental to our interactions, but we are rarely even aware of performing them. While we rely heavily on our ability to recognize each other’s faces and emotions, this reliance makes life that much harder for those who struggle with these processes.

A few months ago, we sought to bring attention to those who live with Moebius Syndrome, a type of facial paralysis that prevents any sort of facial expression. Now, it is important to shift the focus to the opposite case: those who can display emotions but cannot recognize them in others.

A recent study from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology fueled the growing body of literature which finds that those with autism, and especially children with autism, struggle to accurately recognize emotions in other people.

These researchers showed a group of children, aged six to sixteen, a series of images displaying basic emotional expressions, such as happiness, disgust, or anger. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with autism had more difficulty identifying which emotions were being displayed.

While those on the autism spectrum are generally viewed as having trouble with emotional recognition, the study authors went further, suggesting that they could be taught to cultivate this skill. As Dr. Chris Jarrold said “For those who do struggle with recognizing emotions from faces, teaching emotion recognition may be helpful for learning to navigate social situations.”

This is an exciting suggestion, as we have probably all heard the common notion that autism is characterized by a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. If those with autism simply cannot feel empathy, how can they learn to do so? This is especially challenging given the role of empathy in emotional recognition.

In fact, a 2016 study attempted to debunk this stereotype by contrasting autism with alexithymia, the latter of which is characterized explicitly by a lack of empathy. The study author, Dr. Rebecca Brewer, found that alexithymia is not particularly more likely amongst those who also live with autism. In fact, many of the autistic people studied showed an unusually high level of empathetic awareness.

Instead, the inability to identify emotions may have more to do with the difficulties that autistic people have in recognizing faces. Numerous studies, including this one from 2015, have found a strong instance of face-blindness in autistic populations, as high as two thirds. It remains unclear why this is the case, but this potential explanation for autism-related difficulties in emotional recognition helps solve our puzzle.

The problem for those with autism is not based in emotions but based in an underdeveloped skill. Facial recognition is a critical part of emotional recognition, because it allows us to contrast our knowledge of another person’s face with the current emotion being displayed. Instead of recognizing emotions in this almost instantaneous fashion, those with autism can better learn the characteristic features of different basic emotions.

The team at Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology is attempting to do just that, by developing an iPad app that can teach emotional recognition to those with autism and to those who’s ability is simply underdeveloped.

For more information on basic emotions, click here, or visit this page to see how you can improve your own recognition skills!

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