Trusting Can Be Dangerous

December 8, 2015

I have spent a lot of time in the last thirty years advising police, both regional and national, on how to evaluate truthfulness. You can see some of the training tools we used here. Police make mistakes, not just with Black people, although implicit or explicit racism causes a higher rate of mistaken judgments with people of color. The Innocence Project through DNA evidence has freed more than one hundred people from wrongful convictions. My job is to try to help the police make more accurate judgments. Most importantly, not to mistakenly judge innocent people as guilty of a crime.

Most police or LEO’s (Law Enforcement Officers as they like to be called) are suspicious, not trusting. This is a natural consequence of having the job of finding out who committed a crime. Distrust also is a product of the fact that some people in our society deliberately assassinate LEO’s. Yet if the police are not to misjudge the innocent, their suspiciousness has to be held in check. If they are to be protectors not warriors suspiciousness will be a hazard.

This work with the LEO’s has not made me suspicious; I have remained a trusting person in my dealings with family, friends, colleagues, and the employees of my small company. That is a deliberate choice.

We all have to choose which risk we want to take: misjudging the truthful person as lying; or, misjudging the liar as truthful. You can’t avoid both errors. I strongly advise everyone (perhaps with the exception of LEO’s and spies) to avoid the tragedy of misjudging a truthful person. Take the risks associated with trusting; you will be happier, probably live longer and have closer relationships, yet you may sometimes be taken advantage of. That is the cost; not a terrible one.

One further suggestion: try not to put people in the position where they will be tempted to lie. Let me use an actual example from my own family life. When my daughter was an adolescent there was a midnight curfew she was asked to observe when she was out with friends or on a date. One night I heard her come in at 1:30 in the morning, tiptoeing down the stairs to her bedroom. The next morning I was tempted to say, “how was the party?”, to see if she would volunteer that she had broken the curfew, and provide a justification for doing so or lie to me.

Instead I said: “Heard you come in well past your curfew,” (removing the temptation to lie about it), “What happened that you couldn’t make it on time?” Knowing from my own research that kids most often lie to avoid punishment for a misdeed, I wanted her to know that I was expecting there was an acceptable reason for not following the curfew, rather than having punishment (grounding her?) in mind.

I have heard her friends say to her that it must be hard having a father who was an expert in detecting lies. She would reply that she never had to lie to me. Of course I also avoided asking her about activities I knew she knew I would not approve of. The ground rule was that I only had the right to know about anything that put her or her friends in danger.

Our models as parents should be teachers of our offspring not policeman catching them in an offense. That stance will win us the trust of those we live and work with. We should do so knowing that sometimes we may be misled, but we will be trusted.

You can learn more about how to best respond to emotions with Paul Ekman’s Applied Training. Click here.

Darwin’s Claim of Universals in Facial Expression Not Challenged

March 2014
Paul Ekman, Emeritus Professor, University of California, San Francisco
Dacher Keltner, Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Lisa Feldman-Barrett’s recent contribution (New York Times, February 28, 2014) seeks to undermine the science showing universality in the interpretation of facial expressions. In her eyes, recent evidence “challenges[ing] the theory, attributed to Charles Darwin, that facial movements might be evolved behaviors for expressing emotion.” Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press. This is not the first time that Feldman-Barrett publicized her views in the press. We didn’t respond then, but feel compelled to do so now so that the public is not misled, and is apprised of the broader, Darwin-inspired science of emotional expression many scientists are working on today.

First, let’s get the science right. Darwin never claimed in his great book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) that all facial expressions are universal, only a specific set of expressions that he had observed and studied. Nearly one hundred years later Silvan Tomkins helped Ekman and Carrol Izard refine and add to Darwin’s list. In the late sixties, Izard and Ekman in separate studies each showed photographs from Tomkins’ own collection, to people in various literate cultures, Western and Non-Western. They found strong cross-cultural agreement in the labeling of those expressions. Ekman closed the loophole that observing mass media might account for cross cultural agreement by studying people in a Stone Age culture in New Guinea who had seen few if any outsiders and no media portrayals of emotion. These preliterate people also recognized the same emotions when shown the Darwin-Tomkins set. The capacity for humans in radically different cultures to label facial expressions with terms from a list of emotion terms has replicated nearly 200 hundred times.

Feldman Barrett is right to ask whether individuals in radically different cultures provide similar interpretations of facial expressions if allowed to describe the expressions on their own terms, rather than a list of emotion terms. Haidt and Keltner did such a study comparing the free responses to the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions and some other expressions, with people in rural India and the U.S. Once again the findings of universality were clear-cut, and evidence of universality in the expression of embarrassment was also found. The evidence on the judgment of the Darwin-Tomkins facial expressions is robust; so we suppose is Feldman-Barrett’s evidence for the expressions not covered in the Darwin-Tomkins set. She has missed that point, not understanding the difference between unselected and theoretically selected facial expressions.

Feldman-Barrett also ignores two other very powerful data sets that don’t involve showing portrayals of facial expressions to people. Instead what people actually do, spontaneous facial expressions, is measured in numerous, different emotional contexts. Ekman and Friesen published what might be the first such study comparing the spontaneous facial expressions shown by Japanese and American subjects in a private and public setting, finding universal facial expressions – the Darwin-Tomkins set—in private, and different expressions in public. Since then, over a hundred studies have been published measuring spontaneous facial expressions, enough to justify two volumes reprinting the articles of dozens of scientists by Oxford University Press.

Another large body of research has established different patterns of physiology – in bodily changes generated by Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) activity and in brain activity – coinciding with the appearance of the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions. Separate, well-replicated studies, have also shown that voluntarily generating the Darwin-Tomkins set of facial expressions produced distinct changes in ANS and brain activity! Still other studies have related the Darwin-Tomkins set of expressions to distinct responses, including cortisol, oxytocin, dopamine, and the cytokine response that is part of the immune system. This work, ignored in Feldman-Barrett’s critiques, suggests that facial expressions not only are informative about individuals’ feelings, but patterns of neurophysiological activation in their bodies. Darwin emphasized the importance of some universal facial expressions in establishing the unity of mankind, challenging the racist assertions of his time that Europeans had descended from a more advanced progenitor than Africans. Those findings and the conclusion that all human beings have a shared set of facial expressions remains unchallenged.

Are there universal facial expressions?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 3.40.08 PMTake our simple test to learn more about facial expressions of emotion.