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Four pictures of the same man with different expressions: first with a red face a furrowed brow and clenched jaw, second with a red face wide open eyes and slightly clenched jaw, third with a tightened jaw, and fourth a slightly clenched jaw. Photos by Paul EkmanAbout Face

You're alone on a dark street when you see a shadowy figure approaching. The person comes closer, revealing a flushed face, clenched teeth and a furrowed brow. Eager to avoid crossing paths with someone in a fit of rage, you head in the opposite direction. But what if the clues to another person's anger were more subtle? Would you notice?

"Most people don't," says David Matsumoto, professor of psychology and director of the University's Culture and motion Research Lab. In tense situations, he adds, picking up on the clues in people's facial expressions can be extremely important. "A person often has only a few seconds to defuse a potentially dangerous situation."

In his latest study, 50,000 people judged 12 different facial expressions online. Each expression represented a different level of anger. The global study, the first to test recognition of variants of a basic emotion, was conducted in partnership with National Geographic, Clemson University and University of California, San Francisco. Although female respondents were slightly better at judging emotion than male participants, the majority as a whole failed to detect subtle clues to anger (see image).

Matsumoto suggests with a smile that perhaps we're not built to pick up on the subtleties because "it's not always good to know everything another person is thinking."

The professor has amassed a large body of research aimed at helping personnel at the Transportation Security Agency, police officers and others become better judges of emotion. While the applications to security and surveillance are obvious, Matsumoto has also found his research can help physicians improve their bedside manner.

In October he shared his expertise with physicians and medical students at the Mayo Clinic. "Patients have a lot of difficulty talking about personal things," Matsumoto says, pointing to questions related to smoking, alcohol consumption and sexual history. By recognizing subtle clues in patients' expressions, physicians can learn to build strong and trusting relationships.

Matsumoto is grateful for his graduate students who are helping him analyze the National Geographic survey data. "This lab is entirely student-run and with their help, we are able to conduct research and see it published at the highest level."

For more on the survey:


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