How the study of microexpressions could help prevent acts of violence
The slight arch of an eyebrow. A quick crinkle at the corner of the eyes. A barely perceptible downward turn of the mouth. These tiny movements of the face signal microexpressions — facial expressions lasting less than half a second that occur when someone is hiding what they are feeling. They are so subtle and fleeting that people might not even notice them flickering across another person’s face.
For Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto, these tiny expressions — as well as other kinds of nonverbal behavior — have formed the basis of three decades of groundbreaking research. As director of SF State’s Culture and Emotion Research Lab, he heads a busy group of researchers studying a wide range of scientific questions addressing facial expressions, gestures, culture and emotion.
In 2009, Matsumoto was awarded a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense under the Minerva Research Initiative, designed to support research in the social sciences. He and his colleagues have used the grant to examine the role that emotions play in driving ideologically motivated groups toward acts of violence.
Such studies, Matsumoto says, have direct applications for national defense. “It gives us a way in which we can monitor how other groups are being motivated toward aggression or not,” he says. Being able to anticipate acts of war or terrorism creates opportunities for preventing them from happening in the first place.
Matsumoto and his colleagues Hyisung C. Hwang, adjunct assistant professor at SF State, and Mark G. Frank, communications professor at the University at Buffalo, started to tease out these effects by closely analyzing speeches given by leaders of these groups. They looked through historical archives to find acts of aggression committed by groups with leaders who had given speeches in the 12 months prior. In the speeches, the leaders had to be talking to their followers — the “ingroup” — about their enemy — the “outgroup,” Matsumoto explains. The researchers identified 20 such acts from the early 19th century to the present — a process that alone took almost nine months of work.
For example, they collected speeches delivered before the 1830 U.S. Indian Removal Act, the 1939 German invasion of Poland and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. One more recent event included in their study was the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-stage abortions. They trained research assistants, including SF State students, to annotate sentences in the text with the type of emotion expressed, such as joy, hope, pride, anger and fear.
They found many intriguing clues in these texts. For instance, Matsumoto was surprised to see that leaders of groups who committed acts of aggression did not express fear any more than leaders of groups who didn’t commit such acts, but their speeches did contain more language showing contempt and disgust than other emotions. The researchers didn’t find those correlations with speeches leading to nonviolent acts of resistance, such as the 1963 March on Washington in support of civil rights or the 1994 end of apartheid in South Africa.
Words themselves, however, don’t tell the whole story. The group leaders’ nonverbal behaviors — their gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice — play a big role in communicating emotion. So Matsumoto and his colleagues began examining videos of speeches from the last 50 years to include this nonverbal information in their analyses. They found similar results. “The leaders of the ideologically motivated groups who ended up doing some violence expressed more anger, contempt and disgust as they got closer to the event,” Matsumoto says. “And it was specific to when they were talking about the outgroup that they hated.”
Matsumoto sees such work as important not only for national defense but also for diplomacy. “If we can observe how others are talking about us, then we will know how our actions around the world are being interpreted,” he says. “Perhaps we can monitor our own behaviors a little better as our world becomes more interrelated, and we can help people improve their interactions with others.”
No doubt some of his interest in arriving at peaceful solutions to conflicts arises from his lifelong practice of judo. In addition to running a busy lab at SF State, Matsumoto is owner and head instructor of the East Bay Judo Institute in El Cerrito, California. He coached the U.S. national judo team from 1993 to 2000 and was head coach at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games.
Matsumoto has found ways to merge his passion for judo with his scientific curiosity about facial expressions. Because he served as an official for the International Judo Federation, he knew many of the press photographers who cover the competitions. The connections have led to many papers that have addressed basic but important questions in his field. For example, a study comparing photos of blind and sighted judo athletes from the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games found that both groups showed the same facial expressions in response to winning and losing, suggesting that these expressions are not visually learned but innate. More recently, his studies have found that while victorious athletes have an initial and instinctive reaction to display dominance over their opponents, an athlete’s culture affects the intensity with which he or she displays a victory stance.
“Cultures that are more status-oriented have individuals who produce these behaviors more than individuals who come from cultures that are more egalitarian,” he explains. Matsumoto’s work also forms the basis of the El Cerrito-based Humintell, a company that teaches people how to recognize microexpressions. Its workshops and seminars help most anyone, including salespeople, physicians and police officers, “gain insights about the personality, motivation, intentions and mindsets of the people with whom they observe or interact.”
As for his own insights? “[My research] has definitely made me more in tune with what people are thinking and feeling around me, even before they realize it,” Matsumoto says. “My wife always mentions how I will ask her about something before she brings it up, which used to spook her.”
By CORINNA WU /// Photos by TOBY BURDITT