I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing. His article The Art of Failure was, at that time, the most thought provoking piece of magazine writing I'd read in years. Since then I've eagerly looked for Gladwell's byline in each issue of the New Yorker. A couple of weeks ago, Gladwell published his second book, Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Blink is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives — the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress.
To me, the most interesting part of his discussion concerns the messages our faces send unconsciously depending on our reaction to a situation. He had previously written about this in a 2002, The Naked Face.
Perhaps the most famous involuntary expression is what Ekman has dubbed the Duchenne smile, in honor of the nineteenth-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who first attempted to document the workings of the muscles of the face with the camera. If I ask you to smile, you' ll flex your zygomatic major. By contrast, if you smile spontaneously, in the presence of genuine emotion, you' ll not only flex your zygomatic but also tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, which is the muscle that encircles the eye. It is almost impossible to tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars lateralis, on demand, and it is equally difficult to stop it from tightening when we smile at something genuinely pleasurable. This kind of smile "does not obey the will," Duchenne wrote. "Its absence unmasks the false friend." When we experience a basic emotion, a corresponding message is automatically sent to the muscles of the face. That message may linger on the face for just a fraction of a second, or be detectable only if you attached electrical sensors to the face, but It's always there. Silvan Tomkins once began a lecture by bellowing, "The face is like the penis!" and this is what he meant — that the face has, to a large extent, a mind of its own. This doesn't mean we have no control over our faces. We can use our voluntary muscular system to try to suppress those involuntary responses. But, often, some little part of that suppressed emotion — the sense that I'm really unhappy, even though I deny it — leaks out. Our voluntary expressive system is the way we intentionally signal our emotions. But our involuntary expressive system is in many ways even more important: it is the way we have been equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings.
"You must have had the experience where somebody comments on your expression and you didn't know you were making it,"Ekman says. "Somebody tells you, "What are you getting upset about?' "Why are you smirking?' You can hear your voice, but you can't see your face. If we knew what was on our face, we would be better at concealing it. But that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. Imagine if there were a switch that all of us had, to turn off the expressions on our face at will. If babies had that switch, we wouldn't know what they were feeling. They'd be in trouble. You could make an argument, if you wanted to, that the system evolved so that parents would be able to take care of kids. Or imagine if you were married to someone with a switch? It would be impossible. I don't think mating and infatuation and friendships and closeness would occur if our faces didn't work that way."
Ekman slipped a tape taken from the O.J. Simpson trial into the VCR. It was of Kato Kaelin, Simpson's shaggy–haired house guest, being examined by Marcia Clark, one of the prosecutors in the case. Kaelin sits in the witness box, with his trademark vacant look. Clark asks a hostile question. Kaelin leans forward and answers softly. "Did you see that?" Ekman asked me. I saw nothing, just Kato being Kato — harmless and passive. Ekman stopped the tape, rewound it, and played it back in slow motion. On the screen, Kaelin moved forward to answer the question, and in that fraction of a second his face was utterly transformed. His nose wrinkled, as he flexed his levator labii superioris, alaeque nasi. His teeth were bared, his brows lowered. "It was almost totally A.U. nine," Ekman said. "It's disgust, with anger there as well, and the clue to that is that when your eyebrows go down, typically your eyes are not as open as they are here. The raised upper eyelid is a component of anger, not disgust. It's very quick." Ekman stopped the tape and played it again, peering at the screen. "You know, he looks like a snarling dog."
As Gladwell discusses in the book, our brains catch and react these fleeting expressions. The overall concept is something he calls "thin–slicing." That is, our brains evaluate people and situations very quickly, and that subconscious evaluation greatly affects our own behavior for that limited time. With training, we can learn to not only recognize these reactions in ourselves and others, but alter our response to them.
Needless to say, I enthusiastically recommend Blink. The overall concept Gladwell discusses in the book is something he calls "thin&$8211slicing." That is, our brains often evaluate people and situations very quickly, and that subconscious evaluation greatly affects our own behavior for a limited time. Like Gladwell's previous book, The Tipping Point, Blink is not a rigorous scientific study of a phenomenon. Both, however, are highly though provoking and great quick reads.
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