strange behaviors

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Read That Face–Part IV (Knowing the Caveats)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2009

“I want you to become detectives of facial movement,” Rosenberg was saying, and the first step is to look in the bathroom mirror.  “Your face is your model that you have with you at all times,” she said.  So use it as a tool for understanding other people’s facial expressions. “What did her face do?  You think it’s a four.  You try it on your face and see if it matches.”  Did she pull her eyebrows together a little, which might indicate puzzlement or concentration?  (That’s the corrugator muscle at work.)  Or did she drop them sharply, while tightening her lower eyelids, suggesting that you have seriously pissed her off?  Putting on the expression, you start to feel what she felt.

Let’s say you met a woman the other night at a party.  How do you interpret that look she gave you?  Try it now for practice:  Pull your lips out to the sides a bit and tuck in the corners, an expression known as “the dimpler.”  Then lift just one side of your mouth. Does that feel familiar?  Too bad:  It’s contempt.  On the other hand, if you got her to smile and then look away, only to turn back and smile again (cheeks lifting, corners of the eyes crinkling), that’s what FACS coders call the “the coy smile.” Check the back of your hand:  You should have her phone number scribbled there.

But if you are going to become a detective of facial movements, you also need to know the caveats:  First, the same facial movement can mean a dozen different things, so it’s essential to pay attention to context. Lifting the eyebrows, for instance, may be a form of acknowledgement.  But it can also be an expression of surprise. The nose wrinkle generally signals disgust.  But certain perky women also combine it with a smile, like a wink.  (Think Sarah Palin.)  Nuances matter.  If her eyes widen a little that may signal interest.  If they widen a lot, then  you’re a scary piece of work and she’s looking for the nearest exit. 

A second caveat is that most expressions are subtle and quick because real life is not like a nineteenth-century stage melodrama.  “We’ve been socialized out of the big affect,” said Rosenberg.  At the office, a co-worker who’s angry probably won’t open his mouth and bare his teeth.   Instead, you might just notice the upper lip tense momentarily or his lower eyelids tighten.  Or you might have a vague sense that something’s “off” about a person.

But FACS, said Rosenberg, can help pinpoint just what it is that’s bothering you. One day, for instance, the class watched a video of South Carolina mother Susan Smith pleading for the return of her two sons, allegedly kidnapped by a black carjacker.  Then Rosenberg pointed out how Smith’s cheeks lifted in a smile (that’s a 12) while the corners of her mouth struggled to suppress it (a 15).  She was actually enjoying the moment. 

But a facial expression only suggests what a person is feeling, said Rosenberg.  It doesn’t tell you why. It doesn’t automatically tell you that Smith murdered the two boys herself, as she later confessed.  The disconnect between words and facial expressions is simply a clue to ask more questions. Likewise airport security can’t assume that the angry-looking guy in line is plotting to bring down godless capitalism.  Maybe he’s just rehashing a fight with his wife .

Airports, in fact, are where the increasing interest in facial expressions has the potential to complicate all our lives—or save them.  The Transportation Security Administration is now training thousands of screeners at 161 U.S. airports to spot hostile intent using facial and other behavioral cues.  Critics argue that what’s already difficult enough within a small group of people becomes impossible when scaled up for screening tens of thousands of air travelers daily.  A recent report on privacy and terrorism prevention from the National Academies of Science cited a lack of evidence that these methods work as now applied by the TSA.  

The problem isn’t just false positives, said Carnegie-Mellon University’s Stephen Fienberg PhD, a member of the panel.  It’s the false negatives, the terrorists who may game the system and get by while TSA security types are distracted interrogating angry husbands. Carl Maccario of TSA’s Office of Security Operations countered that the behavior detection program may already have saved lives.  At Orlando International Airport last April, agents singled out a passenger for a luggage search because of his suspicious facial expression and body language.   His bag contained materials for a pipe bomb.

 In our ordinary lives, all the ambiguities and caveats about facial expressions are part of what make them so intriguing. Simply understanding that similar expressions have different meanings can keep you out of trouble.  For a male boss, for instance, a common mistake is to read it as flirtation when a female subordinate smiles at him, according to Yale psychologist Marianne LaFrance, PhD.  But if you can remind yourself that smiling at the boss is just one way workers try to look happy and cooperative, you are less likely to end up in a sexual harassment lawsuit.  In a Yale study , female jobseekers actually smiled while being sexually harassed by the interviewer (“How do you feel about going braless in the workplace?”).   It didn’t mean they were happy about it.  It meant they were willing to put up with a lot of crap to get a job.

[Continues tomorrow]

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