Who Should Know How You Are Feeling?

May 2014

Where you go on the Internet, where you travel on city streets, that and more is all up for grabs

Google? NSA? Walmart? It soon may be possible for them to track your emotions in addition to your whereabouts without your knowledge or consent. No regulations from the government to prevent massive surveillance are on the horizon. Already companies are selling software that identifies your name just by looking at your face. The New York Times Business section on Sunday May 18th ran a front page article about the threat of privacy invasion now that software programs identify not only who you are by using hidden cameras to scan your face but then also link to your Facebook posts and other sources of information about you which you didn’t know you were providing.

The next step in privacy invasion

The Times article didn’t mention the next step in privacy invasion, just around the corner – new computer programs that can link your identity to how you are feeling at the moment. What was your emotional reaction when you read the latest news about … Edward Snowden, Kim Kardashian, or President Obama? How did you feel about the latest packaging of Tide, or Trojans? Which TV ad for which politician got the biggest emotional kick from you?

Automated computer recognition of moment-to-moment emotions, even attempts to hide emotions, is nearly here. Crude or incomplete versions are already in use, and better ones will soon be available. I know about all of this having developed the first comprehensive offline tool for measuring facial expressions, and my participation in a company that is developing automated emotion recognition based on my work.

People wearing Google Glass may know not only who you are but also how you are feeling

Despite Google’s attempt to prevent this use of their product, something similar will become available from a copycat manufacturer that reveals the same information. The real threat to privacy comes from the surveillance cameras that are nearly everywhere, when they are able to know our most personal feelings about whatever we are looking at, or the emotions that we are feeling as we remember something from our past, recent or distant. These automated “emotion sensors” won’t know what triggered our emotions, just what emotions we are feeling.

The clever use of this invasive technology will attempt to provoke us by triggering engineered emotional events, without prior consent for having our emotions triggered, or having our emotions read, or having our emotions linked to our identity and everything that is already stored about us (what we buy, where we go, who we live with, and who knows what else).

Can our privacy be rescued from invasion?

Can our identity be hidden, the emotions shown on our face not read?

Joseph J. Atick, one of the pioneers of identity recognition, was quoted in the  N.Y. Times as saying that companies using face recognition to identify us should post notices they are doing so; they should seek permission from a consumer before identifying them, and use that information only for the purposes the consumer has consented to. Those are very modest protections, in my judgment, but still opposed by some of the companies selling the recognition software.

More protection is needed when it comes to reading our emotions

Our consent has to be obtained by more than a public notice that it is being done, and more than clicking on a website’s fine print. A specific, explicit consent to have our emotions monitored by a particular company for a specific purpose, that is time limited, probably to one- or two-hour period, should be obtained. Reading children’s emotions should require parental consent for each occasion it is done. And when a government agency such as the NSA reads our emotions, some regulation, better than ones currently in place, need to be established to protect our privacy.

I am a face scientist, not an attorney, data wonk or legislator. I hope this blog will alert all those responsible for the protection of the public to the urgent need for establishing privacy guidelines.

Afterthought:

Brian Williams of NBC News talks with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the global impact and debate sparked by his revelations. Read more about this exclusive here.

Global Compassion and the Nigerian Schoolgirls

May 2014

Why do we care when we see the Nigerian schoolgirls who are the prisoners of Boko Haram?

We DO watch. Most of us don’t change channels. Why?

There is nothing which ordinarily might catch our eyes: no one is badly injured, or beautifully dressed, or posing in a sexy way. And no one is asking us to do something: give money; write a letter, or anything else. Usually when we are shown suffering somewhere else in the world, like the Japanese Tsunami disaster, we are asked to donate to those in distress. With the schoolgirls, we can only feel compassion for them; there is nothing we can do to help them.

While we watch the Nigerian story many of us imagine the despair, the anger, and frustration the parents of those poor girls must be feeling. Even if we aren’t parents ourselves, we feel a concern for those desperate mothers and fathers. When I became a parent I felt that my heart had been opened; I became concerned about the welfare and suffering of all children, not just my own.

Global Compassion

When we see those captured schoolgirls on the screen we feel what I call “global compassion”. Despite our cultural and linguistic differences, we are able to feel the pain of their situation. What we do share is a sense of common humanity; they are fellow human beings and they and their parents are suffering.

In the history of human existence the capacity to witness the suffering of totally unknown and faraway people is but a blip, a moment in our time on this planet made possible by technology. Compassion was shaped as a human characteristic for family members — the Dalai Lama and Charles Darwin both thought the mother’s compassion for her child is the seed of compassion. We don’t have to learn it; it is given, to parents.

Familial and Familiars Compassion

When I lived and worked in an isolated preliterate culture in New Guinea fifty-seven years ago they were still using stone implements. It was not possible to witness the suffering of total strangers. Instead compassion was felt for members of their own family, fellow villagers, or related tribes. I called this “familiars compassion ”. Although the research has not and cannot now be done, I suspect that everyone in that culture felt both familial and “familiars” compassion, and never had an opportunity to experience compassion for strangers. For there were none.

Compassion in Today’s World

Today, even though we can observe the distress of others far away and unlike us, not everyone feels “global compassion”. Some do, but generally, when the victim appears different from us in every way, fewer of us feel moved to take kindhearted action.

Perhaps the Nigerian schoolgirls are an exception, overcoming the usual obstacles to compassion because their plight touches on our own hardwired parental concern. The pull is unavoidable. Or maybe it is just the novelty that grabs us; have we ever before seen so many young girls kidnapped?

More about the nature of compassion can be found in my new ebook Moving Toward Global Compassion. Additionally, new videos of my discussions on compassion with the Dalai Lama will appear on my website soon. Sign up for my newsletter to be notified when the first “webisode” becomes available.

Spotting Poker Bluffs

May 2014

The game has changed now that TV broadcasts people playing poker.

In the old days not a word was spoken, and that tradition continues today in some venues. But lies had to be spotted; bluffs called. I learned about this from winners of the International Poker Tournament held each year in Las Vegas. It costs $15,000 to enter the fray, and then, after two weeks of serious gaming, the winner walks away with a million bucks.

Two of the winners, in different years, sought my advice knowing that I am an expert in spotting liars. I told them I had not played poker since junior high, and had never watched poker being played. They thought that didn’t matter. It turned out they were wrong.

You can’t win without bluffing, but you can’t win if you can’t spot the bluffers.

The key to winning, each said, was spotting bluffs. Once you know they have a bad hand, if you have a good one, you keep raising the stakes causing the bluffers to lose a lot of money when they are called. I asked them how they did it, given what each said about what happens during a game. Everyone wears large dark glasses, blocking most of the face. Not a word is spoken. That worried me since I had found that detecting lies using my methods got easier the more words that were spoken. What did they rely on if they couldn’t see most of the face and no clues from the words or sound of the voice?

Cards are picked up and laid down, cards are examined, and a movement of the cards on the table signals a wish for another card. They had learned the differences in those few movements to detect when someone is bluffing. But they were not going to tell me how they did it. They wanted me to tell them anything additional they could use to spot the bluffer.

Are poker winners wizards of deception detection?

I tested each of them by showing them a videotape I had made in which you saw 30 people lying or telling the truth. Some were lying about whether they were watching a film of gruesome surgery or beautiful flowers. Some were lying about a strongly held opinion about the justification of capital punishment. And others lied about whether they had taken money which was not theirs. I had shown this test to nearly 15,000 people in every profession you can think of. Over 95% of the people I tested did not much better than chance. But would these poker winners be in the 5%, who I called the wizards of deception detection? No; they were in with the 95%! They were highly skilled in interpreting a very special vocabulary of movements in this silent game of poker they played. Those movements did not occur when people were interviewed.

If people talk while they play their hand, if they claim to have a great hand when they don’t, then what I rely on to catch liars – very brief (micro) and very small (mini) facial expressions, gestural slips, voice changes, and so forth — will probably work. But the stakes have to be high: there has to be a lot to lose or gain. And there has to be conversation during and about the game. For the moment, the silent game of poker remains a mystery to most of us.  Mum’s the word.  And it’s also the best how-to tip for playing poker and getting away with bluffs.

Authorized Lying and Uncovering Deceptions

No one objects to trying to spot poker bluffers; in a sense it is authorized by the rules of the game. Catching liars is also authorized when interrogators question criminal suspects. Although told they have to answer truthfully, confessing crimes they committed, interrogators expect suspects will lie if they think they can get away with it. Although torture is not allowed, interrogators can trick the suspect to get at the truth. Our supreme court has upheld convictions based on confessions obtained by lying to the suspect – for example, claiming another suspect has already confessed, or their fingerprints were on the gun, when neither is true. (Incidentally, that is not allowed in England and most other European countries).

Medical patients are not always truthful, sometimes concealing problems they are embarrassed about having, and often lying about whether they really did use all the medications that were prescribed. No one objects when the doctors or nurses uncover such deceptions, but unlike the interrogator-suspect context, here it is done to help the person engaging in concealment.

Where does this leave us on lie catching?

Whether we should expect to be misled and feel authorized to catch liars is less certain in other arenas. Should we expect someone bent on seduction to be truthful about how many previous partners they have had, or how much undying love they feel? Will our friends tell us about our unwelcome or unattractive mannerisms? Oftenit is not clear what to expect and whether lie catching is needed or justifiable. That is the ambiguity we live with about truth and lies.

Visit our Training Tools page to learn more about how you can train yourself to recognize micro and subtle expressions and improve your ability to ‘read’ others.