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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    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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Archive for the ‘Read That Face’ Category

Hey, Science Fiction! Face it: Reality is Weirder

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 27, 2015

(Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

(Photo: Piotr Naskrecki)

This is the latest of many bizarre insect images the entomologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki posts at his website The Smaller Majority.  He found these characters in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, where most people think wildlife means only those hairy things with four legs Read the rest of this entry »

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Defeat and Defiance: Two Faces

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 27, 2013

I have been writing, off and on, for a while now, about the incredible ability of facial expressions to reveal our inner emotions.  So this photo from today’s (UK) Telegraph caught my eye.

The photo’s not dated, so I don’t know if it was taken in the wake of revelations about Nigella Lawson’s alleged cocaine use.  (The allegations–fair warning–come from her estranged husband Charles Saatchi, who called her “Higella.”  Clever boy.) It appears to have been taken Monday.

What interests me is the defeated angle of her head, the fear in her eyes, and the wary, anticipatory way her lips drop open.  That, and the glowering, untouchable defiance of the 19-year-old daughter:

Nigella Lawson and her daughter Cosima. (Photo: Wenn)

Nigella Lawson and her daughter Cosima. (Photo: Wenn)

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Why Babies Still Take Daddy’s Surname

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 24, 2011

Why do kids still typically get their Dad’s surname, 50 years after the rise of feminism?  Today’s New York Times offers an explanation that hadn’t occurred to me:

Traditional practices grew out of a male-dominated culture and a need for simple rules. But there is another, less obvious motive: to hold men accountable for their offspring.

“How do you attach men to children?” said Laurie K. Scheuble, a senior lecturer at Pennsylvania State University who has done several studies on naming practices. Names are “a very functional and practical way” to do so.

The article goes on to suggest that “perhaps, in an age when men wear BabyBjorns, it is no longer always necessary.”  But despite our delusions of modernity, the writer inadvertently reveals that  even college professors apparently still rely on another ancient means of keeping restless and paternity-insecure  males attached to family:  Jocular talk about how much the kiddies look like them..

When Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, 32, an English professor who lives in Portland, Ore., married Laura Rosenbaum, he toyed with the idea of a creative synthesis.

But “Rosenpollackpelznerbaum sounded like a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. When they had a son, Read the rest of this entry »

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Misreading the Faces of Friends and Enemies

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 21, 2009

Slate recently ran an interesting piece on facial (not racial) profiling.  Writer David Johns was mainly interested in whether you can use the shape of the face to identify a threat.  Here’s an excerpt:

On Nov. 27, 2008, Indian police interrogators came face to face with the only gunman captured alive in last year’s bloody Mumbai terror attacks. They were surprised by what they saw. Ajmal Kasab, who had murdered dozens in the city’s main railway station, stood barely 5 feet tall, with bright eyes and apple cheeks. His boyish looks earned him a nickname among Indians—”the baby-faced killer“—and further spooked a rattled public. “Who or what is he? Dangerous fanatic or exploited innocent?” wondered a horrified columnist in the Times of India. No one, it seems, had expected the face of terror to look so sweet.

The only trouble is that the article focuses too closely on crime and danger.  Facial stereotyping is really much more pervasive in our lives.  Among other things, it has a profound effect in the workplace on who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who gets the pink slip.  You can read about what you are up against in my book The Ape in the Corner Office:  How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature.  I talk about the attractiveness halo, discrimination against ugly people, and other unspoken facts of our working lives.  Here’s a taste:

Physiognomy is destiny.

Physiognomy is also nonsense.

This is one of the weirder contradictions to arise from looking at ourselves as animals.  From ancient Greece to nineteenth-century England, physiognomy was a high science, as systematic as it was illogical: Practitioners held that they could read a person’s character not in fleeting facial expressions but in the flesh and bone of permanent facial features. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Science of Smiling

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 24, 2009


Smiling Lindbergh before transatlantic flight

Smiling Lindbergh before transatlantic flight. The sign says: "KEEP OUT of the water" Credit: H. A. Erickson (Smithsonian Institution)

Human facial expressions are one of my recurring interests, and the other day I ran across an interview I did with the NPR show “Here and Now” about what we mean when we smile.  Click here to take a listen.

And here’s an excerpt from an article on smiling I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine:

Smiles can communicate feelings as different as love or contempt, pride or submission, flirtatiousness or polite tolerance.  A smile can be deeply comforting and reassuring.  (Babies smile a few weeks after birth, and it helps keep new parents from going completely out of their minds.)  Or it can induce a chill of fear.  (Hannibal Lector smiled when he thought about fava beans and a nice little Chianti—with liver.)  A smile can keep customers happy, as businesses often remind their employees.  But it can also send a customer–or the adamantly smiling employee–into a spit-flinging rage.    In truth, despite the common phrase, there is no such thing as a simple smile.



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Read That Face: Conclusion (Can it Change Your Life?)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2009

So has FACS changed my life?  Yes and no.  Watching a video at home, I found myself hitting the pause button so I could check out Claire Danes’s corrugator muscles, a first for me in that anatomical region.  And in the supermarket one day, I looked up across the produce aisle to watch a dad yelling at his young son, and I wanted to say, “Oooo, hey, wait, do you really want your kid seeing that much hatred on your face?”  Then the dad looked up as if he were about to shift his aggression onto me (4d+5d+7c = time to run), and I grabbed three avocadoes and bolted for the checkout.  (Guacamole, anyone?) 

In the interest of science, I even stopped in at the casino up the road to study the gamblers.  But it turned out that I hadn’t gotten any better at spotting a bluff.  Instead, I got distracted by the grim, tight-lipped expression on the face of a woman playing blackjack, and the way her husband was flirting with a woman off to their left. I came away broke and not much wiser for it, much as on previous casino visits.

So I can hear the women out there practically yelling, “Yes, you stupid turnip, but did it make you more empathetic?” And in fact thinking about facial expressions had reminded me in particular of one critical factor in the male-female dynamic.  Studies have suggested that men specialize in expressions of Read the rest of this entry »

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Read That Face–Part V (Being Aware of “Meaningless” Expressions)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2009

As Rosenberg had promised, we were becoming more aware of facial expressions.  One manipulative jerk in class (me) promptly set out to turn his new knowledge to profit. When the local coffee shop was out of iced tea one morning, I put on a disappointed face without actually thinking about it.  But when I went back that afternoon, I decided that if they were still out, I was going to blast the barista with a withering AU7.  That would be a fierce tightening of the lower eyelids, the sort of expression David could have used to slay Goliath, if he hadn’t had a rock.  And in fact they were still out. But my seven seemed to have no effect.  I went for a bottle of fruit drink, and I think it was my AU1, a hapless lifting of the inner eyebrows, that caused the barista to give it to me for free.  And that just made me feel pathetic.

My classmates had weightier problems in mind.  One of them griped about the way a colleague back home never smiles when he passes in the hallway.  Instead, the corners of his mouth jerk briefly out to the sides, as if yanked by puppet strings.   “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I acknowledge that you’re there.  But I wish you weren’t.’”   Another was trying to figure out how to work with a subordinate whose face reveals flashes of hostility and resentment.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” said Rosenberg. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 Read the rest of this entry »

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Read That Face–Part III (Seeing Stuff You Didn’t See Before)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2009

Psychologists studying nonverbal communication first developed the Facial Action Coding System in the 1970s, by cataloguing every possible movement in their own faces.  It’s still primarily a research tool, for coders who watch video in slow motion and spend an hour to analyze a minute’s worth of facial expressions.  It takes that long because a single expression lasting a fraction of a second can end up looking like an algebra equation.  I coded one that came out as 4b+5d+17b+23b+ 25c+26a +29c+38d, with the number indicating which muscled moved and the letter how intensely.  It’s more information than the average guy needs to figure out if his girlfriend likes her birthday present, or if the boss is only pretending to think he did a terrific job on the latest project.  (For that, you can skip the FACS course and instead, for a fee, take a 75-minute training program created by Paul Ekman, Phd, co-founder of FACS, at

But picking apart the individual muscle movements has turned out to be useful in surprising ways.  Hollywood animators, for instance, now use FACS to make characters from Buzz Lightyear to Wall-E emote more realistically.  It “made us aware of things,” says Pete Docter, who directed Monsters, Inc. and wrote the script for Wall-E.  It “helped pinpoint the little things that might turn out to be the essence of an expression.”

Law enforcement and intelligence types now also use FACS-based methods in airport security and in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Read the rest of this entry »

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Read That Face–Part II (“Can’t You See That I’m Upset?”)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 11, 2009

 Next morning, 15 fellow face-watchers and I assembled around a horseshoe of tables, with our laptop computers open in front of us. Rosenberg soon had us scrunching up our noses in pig-snout disgust (that’s an a AU 9), or puckering up like kids making kissyface for the camera (that’s an 18).  We used hand mirrors to see if we’d gotten it right, and it was a little unsettling to look up now and then and see the people around me randomly expressing what looked like anger, or contempt, or delight at their own reflections. A student with an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ lifted his brow and simultaneously rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and for a moment it looked as if Leonardo DaVinci  had painted his “Last Supper” in a psych ward.

Over the course of the week, we were going to have to memorize about 70 muscle and head movements.  But the real trick was that each movement seemed to tug and twist and fold against the others in mysterious and challenging new ways—altogether producing upwards of 3000 meaningful combinations.   It seemed at first like trying to read sense into the clouds passing by on a windy day.

Rosenberg was an attractive woman, fortyish, with curly hair down over her brow, hoop earrings, and an unintimidating manner (except maybe for the teacherly way she lifted the outside of one eyebrow, which made me reach for my homework).  I’d mentioned to her my concern that men might not be as good as women at judging emotions from the face.  She admitted that when she gets home at the end of a bad day, she sometimes has to stop and ask her husband, “Can’t you see that I’m upset?”  Her husband is also a psychologist.  “He’s sensitive.  He’s not a ‘guy’s guy.’  He’s just not that into it.  But when I remind him …”

She theorized, on the other hand, that men might actually do better than women with FACS, because it’s analytical, even technical, breaking emotions down into component parts.  And I could see what she meant as I started to get the hang of the facial bulges and furrows. If we are indeed stupid and insensitive, as the women in our lives often tell us, then maybe we can at least take a kind of car mechanic’s approach to fixing the problem:  “Looks like that corrugator muscle’s acting up again. I better find out what’s bugging her.”  Or maybe:  “Chin boss tremble.  Weeping alert.  Pull over, apply hug.  Wait 60 seconds.  Re-start.”   [Continues tomorrow]

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