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
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: http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/survey2005/results.html