What we can learn about emotional deception from the Philpott case

A lot people read the last post, Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott, most of them from the UK, where it was big news, but also from Norway.

What were they looking for?

Did the Philpott’s do it?

How could the Philpotts do it!

Why did Anders Behring Breivik really do it?

Reading people is interesting. We practice and test our skill. Our physical and social survival can depend on it.

I don’t know if the Philpotts murdered six of their children. I do know that their behaviour at that now well-scrutinized news conference on May 16 looked distinctly odd. But you had to be there to get a feel for the authenticity of their grief.

This is why my previous post deferred to the police officer with a troubled look on his face directed at the Philpotts, captured in that photograph. He seemed to sense that something wasn’t quite right.

People have to be understood three-dimensionally and in motion. To reduce them to a facial expression frozen on camera is to abstract from all that is meaningful. We can only speculate and guess. Convicting them will need evidence.

Nevertheless, reducing people to a facial expression frozen on camera abstracted from all that is meaningful is central to what passes for understanding of emotional deception these days.

Much of what we presume to know about facial expressions of emotions comes from  the work of Paul Ekman, consultant to American intelligence and security. (My scepticism is on record: Reading Faces, Inferring Intent.) He enlists the support of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, first published in 1872.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm for it of the Department of Homeland Security, Ekman’s work remains speculative, divisive and in need of empirical support. In the United States though it’s probably good enough to get you arrested if you look shifty at an airport.

Darwin, however, is a different proposition entirely. So let’s have a look at him.

He became curious about emotions by observing his own children. Much later he published his notes as:

Darwin, C. 1877. “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant.” Mind (7): 285–294.

It begins by referring to:

‘… a diary which I kept thirty-seven years ago with respect to one of my own infants. I had excellent opportunities for close observation, and wrote down at once whatever was observed. My chief object was expression, and my notes were used in my book on this subject …’

You don’t need a laboratory to begin learning about emotions. Just curiosity and a notebook. The ‘book on this subject’ is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to which so many emotional detectives doff their cap.

Darwin understood that some facial expressions are difficult to simulate. He knew this from Guillaume Duchenne (1806-1875) who broke down the movement of the face the same way that Eadweard Muybridge broke down the movements of the horse—by freezing these moments in time using still photography. [Keep the notion of movement in mind for later.]

An authentic and a simulated smile, for example, involve different sets of muscles. You can’t fake an authentic smile because the muscles around the eye do not respond to simulation. This is one reason most of us look bad when asked to smile for a photograph.

For an example of an authentic smile we need look no further that this charming photograph of the Philpotts on their wedding day.

Why do some facial muscles disobey our will? There are two distinct physiological systems for the transmission of motor impulses to nerves. Genuine facial movements emanate from the rather ancient extra-pyramidal motor system and this is beyond conscious control.

The basic emotions are spontaneous and not the result of conscious deliberation. Simulated facial movements, i.e., those we consciously try to create, emanate from the relatively recent cortical motor system. Since the last did not replace the first, there is a limit to our ability to command our emotions.

Hence, if your motor cortex becomes damaged you will still be able to communicate genuine emotions but you won’t be able to volunteer facial movements.

So some facial muscles can be willed into action or inaction and some cannot. We cannot simulate a genuine smile, for example, because we cannot will into life the muscles surrounding the eyes. The ‘grief’ muscles in the forehead are also difficult to intentionally activate. Those muscles least under conscious control, so the argument goes, are most likely to give the game away. They will ‘leak’ information about how you really feel. It is difficult to feign grief or happiness. But not impossible.

These are the ingredients of what has become known as Darwin’s ‘inhibition hypothesis’: emotional deceivers suppress emotions they do have and feign emotions they do not have. They put on a mask, a face. Would-be emotional detectives look for tell-tale signs, the subtle absence or presence of behavioral cues ‘leaked’ by the deceiver. Similarly with language, we listen for signs of unintentional communication of the deceiver’s guilt. A husband pleading for his missing wife’s safe return, may speak in the past tense about her. Such is ‘leakage’.

All this helps explain why emotional deception is hard work. Exhausting actually. Anyone who has had an affair knows that. To give at least the semblance of credibility, emotional deceivers must develop a detailed and consistent narrative (an alibi) and communicate it via facial expressions, body language and speech. The higher the ‘cognitive load’ the greater the risk of ‘leakage’ of the emotional truth.

I suspect that Darwin would turn in his grave if he knew how some of his ideas have been cannibalized and pressed into the service of psychology. Nevertheless, the ‘inhibition’ and ‘cognitive load’ hypotheses are basic to what passes for a theory of emotional deception. It has been tested, if that’s the right word, by generations of students examining other students telling lies of little consequence. Research on high-stakes deception—i.e., the kind that matters—is pretty threadbare.

Nevertheless this theory of emotional deception has been hitched to a taxonomy of the muscles of the face and some high-tech cameras and it’s keeping a watchful eye on you.

It’s as well, then, to keep a watchful eye on it. Consider:

A. The emotions in question are always basic or primary, for only these are connected to the ancient part of brain that is beyond conscious control. But guilt is not a primary emotion.

B. While there may well be a direct link between a muscle group of the face and a part of the brain, there is no direct link between either and a feeling, a thought, an intent. This has to be inferred.

C. Ekman and his acolytes claim to see intent in the most micro of micro-expressions. But is this intent inferred or is it imputed? When fear is in the air, anyone can look like a terrorist.

D. The face is as integral to emotion as the hippocampus or amygdala. Emotion works both ways: inside-out and outside-in. The face isn’t a blank canvas awaiting messages from the brain. Simulating the signs of an emotion on your face can change how you feel inside. If Baudrillard is right about simulation, (see Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott) we can expect the distinction between truth and falsity to be hazy. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be spending so much time poring over photos and videos of the Philpotts.

E. ‘Leakage’ suggests that the truth is inside and will seep to the surface given the right circumstances. A micro-expression of guilt will flash across a face. A forehead will refuse to frown in the correct way and we’ll know they really did it. The eyes will refuse to light up when they smile. All this assumes that emotions are discrete, simple things. They are not. They are not things at all, but processes. Emotions are like the legs of a horse—a blur of motion. They are kaleidoscopes of often contradictory, shifting feelings and thoughts. A murderous intent is only a razor blade’s thickness away from a pledge of love. Like colours emotions are defined and known in terms of each other, relationally.

F. Poke around in the literature and we discover that there are two categories of people who escape this little conceptual net: the psychopathological and the powerful. Psychopaths have weak feelings (especially of empathy) and strong cognitive control. There is, then, less chance of their ‘real’ feelings ‘leaking’. Psychopaths can be utterly charming. The powerful become so, in part, precisely because they have the emotional intelligence to interpret others’ intentions, to persuade and deceive them. They do not experience the characteristics of deception that produce leakage. They don’t feel bad, they feel powerful. In other words, the people who escape this conceptual net are precisely those liable to emotionally deceive.

Some contend that psychopathy and leadership merge in the corporate world. To form an opinion see: ‘Are Corporate Leaders Psychopaths?’

See also:

Sobhani, M., and A Bechara. 2011. “A Somatic Marker Perspective of Immoral and Corrupt Behavior.” Social Neuroscience 6 (5-6): 640–652.

G. What we perceive in a person’s face, body language and speech, is a combination of what is ‘out there’ and what is ‘in here’ (our heads). In other words, perception is always conceptually-mediated and those concepts are tinged with emotion. In a climate of fear, anyone can look like a terrorist. In a climate of jealousy, signs of infidelity are everywhere.

Perceptions of murder suspects are shaped by those close to the action in conjunction with the police. All victims of miscarriages of justice—and there are a lot of them—have been convicted with absolute confidence in their guilt. Didn’t they just look guilty.

An affair. A murder. The dynamics of emotional deception are the same. In both cases, suspicion is not enough; one also needs evidence or a confession.

It’s not the infidelity that’s fatal to relationships, it’s the lying. We’re no longer sure about what is emotional real. Very few relationship can survive that.

A similar need to know what is emotionally real is behind the intense interest in the Philpotts, indeed anyone charged with murder. We need to know who is amongst our midst.

Finally, look hard enough into most of us and guilt will be found. Has anyone, ever, looked innocent in a mug-shot?

I’ll give the last word to Hamlet for he knew a thing or two about emotional deception.

Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. (Hamlet)

The less suspects deserve, the more our generosity is worth. We should treat them with honour and dignity.

2 thoughts on “What we can learn about emotional deception from the Philpott case

  1. George says:

    Please note that the link to the YouTube video I am Fishead is broken. While Ekman’s work may be flawed in some respects, few researchers have addressed this topic as systematically. As lying continue to embed itself into the ethics of everyday life, Ekman’s book Telling Lies is not a bad starting point for educating ourselves on the dynamics of deceitful behavior.

  2. Your last words are very reflective of the exercise the observer is put through by the narrator, Peter Coyote, in I Am Fishead. We are asked to consider taking the pill and joining the ranks of the psychopath, seriously consider it, and are brought back to our senses, knowing that we, the “normal” masses, couldn’t seriously consider it. And yet it is that passivity that draws us to someone who can make that judgement call, that decision, for us-Mr. Coyote is so convincing, charming. I commend you for providing this consciousness raising near the end of your post, urging us to make our own decision regarding how their reactions are viewed.

    In saying this I went further on to YouTube to see the press conference as well as other clips of the Philpotts and have to say that his demeanour does nothing to endear him to me, but what I think more importantly influenced my perception of him is a display of his inability to contain anger that was taped on a UK tabloid television show. While psychopaths can’t identify with feelings of empathy what seems particularly evident is that they can identify with feelings of anger and rage. The photo that you have posted that captures the police officer’s disbelief may have been a matter of “perfect timing” and the viewer’s interpretation but I do believe that it captured a true moment of perhaps realization for the officer. The Philpott’s display doesn’t seem genuine but then again I don’t know how I would react to such a tragedy; then again I would certainly be demanding that someone find out who the culprit is-not thanking the community for coming together. It just seems too unreal-someone who can connect so quickly with their anger you would think would display that-after all isn’t that the first step in the grieving process?

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