Reading faces: Before, during and after battle

Let’s set aside books for a while and read these faces in Lalage Snow’s ‘We Are The Not Dead‘:

A series of portraits of British soldiers over a period of eight months, before, during and after their operational deployment in Afghanistan. The portraits are captioned with the thoughts and feelings of each individual. They speak of fear, being injured, losing a brother soldier, missing home, excitement, coming home, and what life is like on the frontline

As the body count of British servicemen killed or wounded rose and the political ramifications of the British army’s presence in Afghanistan became increasingly convoluted, more and more soldiers felt like they didn’t have a voice, or at least, weren’t being listened to. ‘We Are The Not Dead’ is an attempt at giving the brave young men and women the chance to speak.

It’s important to read the captions.

Photographer, journalist and film maker Lalage Snow is from Belfast. She has a degree in ancient history. Visit her web site here. Follow her on Twitter: @lalagesnow.

For the story behind the images see Lalage Snow Gives a Voice to the Faces Behind the War.

Before the effect one believes in different causes than one does after the effect. (Nietzsche)

The Philpotts: guilty of emotional deception

A fire starts mysteriously. Six children die. The police arrest and charge their parents (and a friend) with manslaughter, for starting the fire deliberately.

The plan was to start the fire, blame the woman with whom they were engaged in a custody dispute, rescue them and claim the moral high ground as heroes. But the plan went wrong. Too much gasoline. The children were beyond help.

Last week, the jury found the three defendants guilty. We must conclude, then, that this performance was an attempt at emotional deception. So it seemed to me and many others, including the police. See for yourself:

It was a stupid idea that went disastrously and predictably wrong. Had they at least admitted this their guilt might have been accompanied by a small measure of pity, for their foolishness. But to attempt to deceive the public with this simulated grief at a press conference they called themselves compounds their guilt and puts them into that most feared category in British public opinion—the monster. They will be fortunate to survive in prison.

For those who want the background to this story, I covered this case earlier, in these posts:

The Philpott file updated. February 12, 2013

Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott, May 31, 2012

Real or false grief?: Couple charged with killing own children. May 29, 2012

What can we learn about emotional deception from the Philpott case? June 5, 2012

Reading faces, inferring intent. May 28, 2012

Canadian courage conquers new heights?

‘It is not the absence of fear, but rather the presence of confidence under fearful circumstances that is characteristic of the brave person’ (Ben-Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions, 2000, p. 483).

and yet:

‘There are also a small number of people who are relatively impervious to fear … These people may be fearless but they are not courageous—they have no fear to cope with or overcome.’ (ibid.)

Either way, we’re winners but does this guy look courageous or fearless?

The Philpott File Updated

Mick and Mairead Philpott are on trial for the manslaughter of their six children. I’m interested in the case for what it can teach us about emotional deception. I wrote about the case at the end of May:

Real or false grief?: couple charged with killing own children

Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott

If they did it, what are we to make of their display of grief at this press conference?

How would you read that?

The prosecution argues that their intent in starting the fire was not to kill their children but to frame Mick Philpott’s ex-girlfriend so as to gain the moral high ground in a custody battle.

But the Philpott’s did not reckon on the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The current state of play in the trial is set out here. I’ll be following it to its conclusion.

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.

Simulating is not pretending: Observations on Mairead and Mick Philpott

A look askance

I want to comment on the case of Mairead and Mick Philpott of Derby, England. To recap: following their arrest and questioning by police, yesterday they were charged with the murder of six of their own children by setting alight to their home.

The tragedy it is interesting because the prospect of their guilt contrasts so starkly with the display of their grief at a news conference on May 16.

They would not have been arrested and questioned, let alone charged, unless the police had reasonable grounds for believing them guilty. This guilt, of course, still has to be proven. If they are guilty they must have been lying during their press conference. Or so the speculation goes.

The question asked of us ‘experts’ then becomes: Can we tell, by analyzing their facial expressions, body language and voice if they were lying? It’s an understandable question, but is it the right one?

I ask this because I’m reminded of something Baudrillard says:

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending: “Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation; my emphasis)

Now Baudrillard is often dismissed as an unintelligible French social theorist, but he’s on to something here.

We might ask: were the Philpott’s simulating grief during their news conference? Simulating, for Baudrillard, is not pretending. Whoever simulates an emotion produces in himself/herself some of the symptoms. We know, for example, that simulating an emotion by making the appropriate facial expression, can stir that emotion inside you.

Simulating, then, isn’t lying. It blurs the distinction between what is true and what is false. Simulating is deceiving.

We simulate to deceive. Many animals do it. I once knew a blue jay that simulated the call of a local hawk as it swooped down to the bird table. Other birds scattered and it was free to feed at leisure. The jay knew exactly what is was doing.

Individual humans do it as they negotiate their daily lives. If we all revealed what we really felt inside human societies would disintegrate.

Nation states do it in the form of military deception. They make the enemy believe one thing about their intentions and do another.

I suspect that humans ability to detect deception is deteriorating. When everything is simulated, even emotions, the search for authenticity leads to nostalgia, to a time and place when things were real.

Other, wilder, animals, however, are a different matter. Gazelles know when a lion is in hunting mode just be looking at it. A dog or a horse can weigh you up in an instant. Those whose survival depends on being able to judge a human’s intentions have a vested interest in being very good at it. These are the captive. It has been said that women became recognized as emotionally skilled because when they were economically subordinated to men they had to be. These are the famous ‘feminine wiles’.

The Philpotts may or may not have lied during their questioning by police. But were they simulating grief during their press conference on May 16, 2012?

Knowing they have been charged with murder is bound to influence our retrospective reading of it, but their behaviour does seem odd. No actual tears, but plenty of hanky. The tears which we are asked to believe were coming out of their eyes had the effect of preventing us looking into them. They say that losing even one child is enough to make you want to hand back your ticket to the universe. I have seen such people and they look stunned, shocked, ghost-like, unable to comprehend what has happened to them. To lose six takes you into a realm without words: just silent immeasurable pain.

The Philpott’s behaviour at that news conference looked to me like a performance.

If so, why would they think it necessary? After all, having lost six of your children a press conference to ‘thank’ everyone for their ‘support’ is hardly expected. And the people Mick Philpott thanked (which included his three eldest remaining children) could have been thanked personally rather than through the media.

Perhaps the Philpotts felt the finger of suspicion pointing at them and wanted to deflect it away by winning the backing of public opinion and using it as a shield against the police. That would be my guess. If so, they were gambling on no one believing that any one—least of all parents—could be capable of such a bare-faced and despicable deception. They appear to have lost this bet.

But emotional authenticity is something to be sensed through all of the body, not just the brain. It’s settled by feeling, not argument. This is why all of the above is but nothing compared to the testimony of the look on the face of the police officer in the above photograph as he takes in Mairead and Mick Philpott’s display on May 16.

Real or false grief?: couple charged with killing own children

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post ‘Reading Faces: Inferring Intent,’ today Mairead and Mick Philpott in Derby, England were arrested on suspicion of murdering their six children by setting fire to their home. The case is especially interesting, for our purposes, because about two weeks ago the grief stricken couple held a (televised) news conference to thank the community for its support.

The story is here: Helen Carter. Parents arrested over Derby house fire that killed six children. The Guardian. Tuesday, May 29, 2012.

Keeping in mind that they are innocent until proven guilty, we are entitled to form an opinion on the veracity of their grief as revealed in the following video.

Is this authentic or feigned grief? And why?

The video is here.

Reading Faces, Inferring Intent

Do facial expressions convey the same emotions around the world? Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2012, is a useful way of getting acquainted with the debate over facial expressions and emotions.

You will see that the work of Paul Ekman is central to that debate.

Ekman is known for devising the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). It is a taxonomy of the musculature of the human face and of their activation when we communicate an emotion. From information provided by FACS, researchers infer what emotion the person is communicating. On this basis, another inference is made about what the person intends to do.

Ekman’s work is contentious and has been severely criticized. He provides no evidence to support those two inferences, some argue. It is all in the eye of the beholder.

But the security and intelligence industry has been won over. Ekman ‘consults’ for the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defence, and the Transportation Security Administration. He taught guards at Abu Ghraib on how to extract ‘information and truth’ from prisoners; and Special Forces in Afghanistan on how to determine enemy intent to kill.

FACS is used at airports to scan the faces of travellers for signs of guilty intent. On this see Intent to Deceive? Nature, 26 May, 2010. Ekman regrets not being able to have detected the facial expressions of the 9/11 terrorists so that they could have been stopped.

His home page is Cutting Edge Behavioral Science for Real World Applications.

You’re not worried, because you are not a terrorist? Well, one day you might be because the definition of ‘terrorist’ is broadening by the day. In the United States it is broad enough to cover most forms of dissent. It is as well to be interested in a system that claims to know your intent from your facial expression.

FACS is now being adapted for integration into software and soon a computer will be interacting with you on the basis of what it knows about your emotional state. Keep an eye on Facebook’s Facial Recognition.

As with all authors, it is best to read Ekman yourself.

Here I want to pay attention to an article that did much to popularize his ideas: Malcolm Gladwell. ‘The Naked Face: Can you read people’s thoughts just be looking at them?’ The New Yorker. August 5, 2002. The short answer, for Gladwell, seems to be, Yes.

The article begins and ends with a vignette about two police officers. One shot an assumed assailant, the other did not. Both acted on ‘hunches’. Gladwell connects these hunches to Ekman’s work on how to detect emotions from facial expressions. This is the opening vignette:

If you looked at it logically, I should have shot him. But logic had nothing to do with it. Something just didn’t feel right. It was a gut reaction not to shoot—a hunch that at that exact moment he was not an imminent threat to me’ (Yarbrough).

Something did not ‘feel’ right. It was a ‘gut’ reaction. Perhaps a ‘gut feeling’; a hunch. Now this sounds like what Antonio Damasio would call a ‘somatic marker’, i.e., an emotional memory of what happened in a similar situation, something we feel in the body. In other words, this perception was informed by experience. Hence, the police officer’s assessment that ‘the longer you’ve been working the stronger that instinctive reaction’.

Note that the officer and his potential assailant were in possession of all their senses; not just sight, but also hearing, touch, smell, taste. I make this point because Gladwell immediately ignores all this and focuses on the face and sight alone. Just as Ekman himself does.

Gladwell tells us that something Officer Yarbrough saw ‘held him back’. And yet Yarbrough tells us that what held him back was a ‘gut feeling’, a ‘hunch’. It was not just what Yarbrough saw that held him back, it was how he felt about what he saw.

Nevertheless, on this shaky foundation, Yarbrough is elevated to the ranks of those who can see what others cannot. ‘What do they see that we miss?’

Ekman, Gladwell tells us, ‘could look at a face [on video tape] and pick up a flicker of emotion that last no more than a fraction of a second’. That’s impressive—if there is any evidence of it. Like God, like U.S. security, Ekman sees and knows everything.

The problem here is that emotions are seldom, if ever, experienced in their ‘pure’ form. We usually experience an adulterated and constantly changing mixture of several, often conflicting, emotions. They are processes, qualities of social relationships, not static things that ‘belong’ to individuals.

Ekman sees the face as a screen featuring the emotion channel. His subjects are images of faces displayed on televisions, photographs or movies. He arrests the image, infers what the subject is feeling and, from that, what the subject is thinking. From there it is but a short leap to the subject’s presumed intent.

Emotions, however, are experienced throughout the body. The face is certainly important, but so too is the language of the body, tone of voice and the social context of the person. What we feel inside but do not express outside is as important as what we display to others.

Note how Gladwell’s presentation of Ekman’s argument slides from his ‘taxonomy of facial expressions’ to his ‘catalogue of the essential repertoire of human emotion’, without any intervening evidence.

The article concludes with another vignette. This features Officer Harms and his colleague, Scott. Harms too had a gut feeling, a hunch about a potential assailant.

Harms pulled out his gun and shot the man through the open window. “Scott looked at me and was, like, ‘What did you do?’ because he didn’t perceive any danger,” Harms said. “But I did”.

This is intended as a clinching example of the truth of Ekman’s understanding of the connection between facial expressions and emotions. Some people are just gifted this way and we’ve got to give them license to do what they’ve got to do.

But it’s evidence of something rather different, I think. The police officer shoots a man without any evidence that he’s breaking the law. It parallels Ekman’s own lack of evidence to sustain his theory of the connection between facial expressions and emotions. Ekman just knows. In both cases, the scientist and the police officer are omniscient and not to be doubted.

But what if the man who was shot had perceived, or had a gut feeling, that the officer was going to shoot him and shot him first? Would that have been OK too?

It is plain why Ekman’s model has been embraced by the security apparatus of the United States. It meshes with its panoptic surveillance and practice of preemption.

First there were body scanners, now there are face scanners. Both claim to be able to see what is beyond the surface—what dangerous weapons, feelings or thoughts we may be harbouring.

They will judge our intentions and act upon them. They’re looking for pre-crime. There is no right of appeal. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012, allows for the indefinite detention of accused terrorists (including Americans) without charge or trial or evidence. [The Wikipedia account is here.] To repeat, ‘terrorism’ is broad enough to embrace defenders of civil liberties, anyone who dissents.

Ekman is a psychologist and psychology clearly has a lot to offer. But it does not have a monopoly on truth nor does it give the complete picture. This course aims for an interdisciplinary study of emotions. As this case suggest, sociology and politics also have something to say about emotions.

David Matsumoto and Paul Ekman. Facial expression analysis. Scholarpedia. 2008.

Beth Azar. What’s in a face? Do facial expressions reflect inner feelings? Or are they social devices for influencing others? APA Monitor on Psychology. January 2000.

Ian Leslie. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? The Guardian, 8 October, 2011.

Kevin Randall. Human Lie Detector Paul Ekman Decodes The Faces Of Depression, Terrorism, And Joy. Fast Company. 12.14.2011.