Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reading People Like a Bene Gesserit

In Frank Herbert's Dune, the Bene Gesserit "witches" are so adept at reading people's faces and body language that they can appear almost psychic. According to a couple of articles in this month's Scientific American Mind those are learnable skills.

"Gestures Offer Insight", describes the work of David McNeill at the University of Chicago and Spencer Kelly at Colgate University on interpretation of gestures.
McNeill's work, and numerous studies since then, has shown that the body can underscore, undermine or even contradict what a person says. Experts increasingly agree that gestures and speech spring from a common cognitive process to become inextricably interwoven. Understanding the relationship is crucial to understanding how people communicate overall.
"A Look Tells All" profiles UCSF psychology professor emeritus Paul Ekman, who has catalogued more than 10,000 different human facial muscle movements, and taught himself to recognize those microexpressions that can reveal what a person is feeling. These facial expressions are universal: he found the same expressions recognizable in North Americans, Japanese, Argentinians, and even in isolated tribes on the island of New Guinea. (You can see the kinds of expressions Ekman looks for in the Facial Action Coding System.)

He cautions that recognizing what a person is feeling is not the same as knowing what they are thinking.
Does his talent make him a mind reader? "No," he says candidly. "The most I can do is tell how you are feeling at the moment but not what you are thinking." He is not being modest or coy; he is simply addressing the psychological bottom line behind facial expressions: "Anxiety always looks like anxiety," he explains, "regardless of whether a person fears that I'm seeing through their lie or that I don't believe them when they're telling the truth."

The professor calls the ever present risk we all take of misreading a person's visage "Othello's error." In Shakespeare's drama, Othello misinterprets the fear in his wife Desdemona's face as a sign of her supposed infidelity. In truth, the poor woman is genuinely alarmed at her husband's unjust, jealous rage. Othello's subsequent decision to kill Desdemona is a fatal error, and Ekman wants to make sure that police, security personnel and secret service agents do not make the same mistake.
Even Jessica Atreides fell into that trap. Shortly after arriving on Arrakis, Jessica had a discussion with the Suk Doctor Wellington Yueh .
Jessica dropped her arms, crossed to the hall door and stood there a moment, hesitating, then let herself out. All the time we talked he was hiding something, holding something back, she thought. To save my feelings, no doubt. He's a good man. Again, she hesitated, almost turned back to confront Yueh and drag the hidden thing from him. But that would only shame him, frighten him to learn he's so easily read. I should placed more trust in my friends.
Of course if Jessica had confronted Yueh, there wouldn't have been much story.

(Scientific American links via Mind Hacks)

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