Thursday, August 16, 2012

Does this expression have a name?
Tom Smith

Stewart Baker asks regarding a certain facial expression which involves lifting both eyebrows at the ends closest to the nose. Actually, according to Robert Frank anyway, this is a very interesting expression that illustrates a fascinating and plausible theory about emotions and game theory. This facial expression is supposed to be very difficult to fake and betokens a certain earnest sincerity. It is like the eyes part of a sincere smile; many people can pull up the ends up their mouth in a fake smile, but getting your eyes to smile too requires a sincere smile for most people. So if the expression had a name, it would be something like "earnest sincerity."

That there should be hard to fake signals of emotion is very useful in social cooperation and so therefore it is plausible that they should have evolved in a social species. So if Prisoner 1 says to Prisoner 2, in the prisoners' dilemma game, if you don't confess, neither will I, whilst holding his eyebrows up in the way described above, you will probably make the unconscious judgment that he is being sincere and he probably is being so. Same thing for, I will never leave you, so you're cool working your tail off to put me through medical school. 

OTOH some people can fake these signals, but at least according to Frank (if I remember correctly) this ability is pretty rare. If you are thinking, this would give fakers quite an advantage, you are right.  Game theoretical dynamics ensue but hopefully, maybe an equilibrium is reached where fakers are a small minority, even if some of them are very successful.

Curiously, one of the people who can fake this expression is the famous comic Woody Allen. It follows (this is me, not Frank) that he is probably an unusually convincing liar, which makes sense when you consider his personal history. BTW I recommend Frank's book most enthusiastically. It was one of those books that really did change the way I look at the world.

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I find that expression to be one that tells me the person is lying. Watch it on Axlerod, or any sincere looking politician, the area between the inner eye and the eyebrow gives them away every time. I've watched many liars in my 75 years and I believe that always gives them away.

Posted by: Ruth H | Aug 16, 2012 5:39:47 PM

Well, the point is, a good liar can fake it, so I suppose a really skillful liar would figure out it was just the expression to use to be really convincing. If you see this in a lot in liars, the claim would be you are observing an unusually talented bunch of liars. Are you in law enforcement? Politics? But if Frank is correct, most people who make this face at least think they are telling the truth. Other studies suggest as much as 5 percent of the population is sociopathic and so able to lie guiltlessly. The number is probably specious but it could well be a significant minority. Of course, it could also be Frank and whoever he is relying on is just wrong. Studying facial expressions must be difficult.

Posted by: Tom Smith | Aug 16, 2012 6:19:26 PM

Pols are probably more skilled at lying than are most people. Some people who aren't skilled at lying might use gestures such as the smile-without-eye-involvement that are transparent. In a negotiation you might see that kind of gesture and factor it into your calculation rather than walk away or otherwise make an issue of it.

Posted by: Jonathan | Aug 17, 2012 9:16:19 PM