Does the Face Match the Words?

Posted on October 8, 2010. Filed under: business, economy, News, people | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |


A smile is simply a smile, right? Not according to political scientist Patrick Stewart of the University of Arkansas, who studies the facial expressions of political leaders.

Stewart has been certified recently as an official coder for the Facial Action Coding System. In simpler terms, he is certified in reading facial muscle movements. The coding system aids him in researching the underlying messages in certain expressions. Many behavioral ecologists, psychologists and political scientists have learned that facial expressions reveal more than meets the eye.

The Facial Action Coding System was developed in 1976 by Paul Ekman to examine discrete facial movements that signal certain emotions. If Ekman’s system sounds familiar, it may be because it’s being used on the television series Lie to Me. The show centers on a group of psychologists using this method to assist law enforcement with lie detection.

Unlike the show’s characters, Stewart does not focus on lie detection but rather on smiles and humor in political leaders. He examines humor in politicians’ speeches and the effect it has on their audiences. Is it charm or tension? Do their smiles signal nervousness?

“Leaders are those individuals that dominate our attention,” he says.
Through public opinion surveys he is trying to figure out if the political leaders he studies actually do dominate attention and if their facial expressions emphasize their words or create speculation.

“I am really interested in micro displays. I look at the nearly subliminal expressions and try to interpret what feelings are behind them,” Stewart says. “I am getting at the basic elements of human communication. As humans we respond to things that occur in even 1/33 of a second and we are always unconsciously performing for others.”

In a previous study he examined George H. W. Bush’s speeches, and through surveys found many people were not completely convinced of what he was saying because of certain facial expressions.

“When George Bush talked about sending troops to Iraq, we saw a type of smile where his eyes are opened wide and his teeth are clenched; a frightened smile. The interpretation is that he was anxious about going to war,” Stewart says.

“A loosened jaw is a micro thing, but it is very important in telling if a person is being genuine.”

To achieve Facial Action Coding System certification, Stewart completed 150 hours of training in identifying different facial expressions through their specific muscle movements. He is now part of a group of 4,000 individuals around the world that have been certified in the system in the United States in the past 20 years.

Stewart is an assistant professor of political science in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

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