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Thursday, May 19, 2011

I See Through You

I just made a cabbage and carrot curry so spicy that it took me about 25 minutes to eat one bowl. Between bites sand wiping my face off on my shirt, I watched a TED presentation on smiling. The presentation wasn't that interesting and kind of scratched me the wrong way, like so many TED talks do. Does this guy really deserve a standing ovation for taking seven minutes to tell us that people who smile more are longer-lived and better liked than people who smile less?

Anyway, at the end of it, I still hadn't finished my meal, so I perused the comments section and found an interesting link: Spot the Fake Smile, a test/experiment where you can gauge your ability to guess whether a given smile is genuine or faked.

Before you start trying to interpret the smiles, the test asks you: is your general worldview optimistic (1) or pessimistic (7)? How confident are you in your ability to judge correctly - low (1) to high (7)? After some debate, I answered 6 (pretty pessimistic) on the first and 5 (slightly confident) on the second. But then, I started thinking. What sort of statistics are they keeping these numbers for? Are they figuring out for themselves whether self-identified optimists or pessimists are better at interpreting faces? If so, I figured, pessimists would probably be worse. They're more wrapped up in their own problems, less likely to trust others, and less likely to see good things when they're there. I then guessed that I would get something like a 10 - i.e., as good as guessing - on the test.

To my surprise: "You got 18 out of 20 correct."

Possible explanations:
1) Most of the samples were fakes, so that my tendency to identify smiles as fakes was vindicated by the test's lack of balance. (Information provided after the test proved that this was not the case, though I won't tell you which, lest it interfere with your results).
2) My pessimism, agoraphobia, and constant eerie feeling that this or that person is a sham have some basis in reality.
3) Cumin, mustard seeds, ginger, cabbage, carrots, chili peppers, onions, or some combination thereof, greatly increases your ability to spot fakes.

or,

4) Maybe optimists are better at picking out fake smiles, and I'm actually an optimist who just thinks he's a pessimist. Is there a word for this?

An interesting tidbit that comes up after the test:

"Most people are surprisingly bad at spotting fake smiles [I'd love to know what the average score is]. One possible explanation for this is that it may be easier for people to get along if they don't always know what others are really feeling.'

Amen to that!

3 comments:

jorf said...

Damn! I got 19/20 right. Missed the guy with the goatee, number 16 or 17 I think.

Rated myself both penultimately optimistic and able to judge well.

There were some creepy folks in that test...

SandfordWrites said...

I haven't looked at it but your thoughts have me wondering about how subjective our view people can be. How can you really trust that your opinions of people are valid from a photo or from an impression. I've met fake people by the outlook who too out to be people I could trust. But if that's all we have to go on that's just what we have to rely on.

Also what if they couldn't find a balance of people because most people everyone wears fake smiles to their bosses and their co-workers to be polite at the cost of sincerity?

It's imitates the modern interpretation of Confucianism in which my co-workers smiles are not accurate judges of characters.

If so, how can we really trust our first impressions if people are culturally insincere?

Mike said...

Jeff: Another interpretation presents itself. Perhaps pessimists do judge well - in which case, you may be more pessimistic than me!

Greg: I don't remember whether at the end of the test they revealed how they got the smiles, but I'm betting they kept a person's face on camera until they could tell a joke that elicited a genuine smile, then asked for a fake smile after, then picked one to use. The final page reveals that there were ten fakes and ten reals, so, like I said, my guess about the odds being stacked wasn't right.

Two things occur to me:
1) Fake smiles aren't always malicious or deceptive. Often - this came up in the TED talk I mentioned, by the way - smiling is not about expressing happiness, but about causing it. It might be better to describe it as good-willed, or hopeful, not necessarily manipulative.

2) Of course, you don't really know anything about a person if you've seen them smiling or faking it once. All that teaches you is what that person is doing and feeling in that particular situation. Any other judgment you make about the person's character is an extrapolation which can only be (in)validated over time. Not to mention that personalities and dispositions change over time, too, so that really being able to read someone's smile probably requires years of constant contact.