Applying microsociology to the face of the Mona Lisa

Sociologist Randall Collins uses microsociology and the concept of microexpressions to examine the Mona Lisa:

The purpose of micro-sociology is not to be an art critic. I only make the venture because so many popular interpretations of the Mona Lisa blunder into social psychology.  But reading the expressions on photos is good training for other pursuits. Paul Ekman holds that knowledge of the facial and bodily expressions of emotions is a practical skill in everyday life, giving some applications in his book Telling Lies. And it is not just a matter of looking for deceptions. We would be better at dealing with other people if we paid more attention to reading their emotional expressions—not to call them on it, but so that we can see better what they are feeling. Persons in abusive relationships—especially the abuser—could use training in recognizing how their own emotional expressions are affecting their victims; and greater such sensitivity could head off violent escalations.

Facial expressions, like all emotions, are not just individual psychology but micro-sociology, because these are signs people send to each other. The age we live in, when images from real-life situations are readily available in photos and videos, has opened a new research tool. I have used it (in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory) to show that at the moment of face-to-face violence, expressions of anger on the part of the attacker turn into tension and fear; and this discovery leads to a new theory of what makes violence happen, or not.  On the positive side, micro-interactions that build mutual attunement among persons’ emotions are the key to group solidarity, and their lack is what produces indifference or antipathy. And we can read the emotions—a lot more plainly than the smile on Mona Lisa’s face.

Watching for microexpressions definitely makes social interaction more interesting. Ekman’s work suggests telltale signs on people’s faces reveal their true underlying emotions and also people tend to have very quick initial expressions before they put on their face or mask of what they are trying to express. Goffman’s ideas about impression management still apply, we generally are trying to save face and maintain our social status, but it is harder than simply saying the right things or acting in the right way as our facial expressions can still give us away.

A follow up to a Charles Darwin experiment shows how emotions change over time

Wired explains how several researchers followed up on an experiment Charles Darwin conducted:

Charles Darwin liked to freak out his friends—for science. Guests visiting the famed naturalist in 1868 were shown a set of “ghoulish” photos of a guy being prodded in the face with an electrical current. Darwin then asked his guests-cum-guinea pigs to describe the emotion displayed in each photo. Was the subject happy? Sorrowful? Cheeky? Darwin hoped to determine what universal core emotions exist (if any) and what culturally modified variations branch from them. The result was Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Interesting, sure, but not the best science: The Victorian-era crowdsourcing experiment lacked consistent materials, a control group, and enough test subjects—he had only 24.

Fortunately, the University of Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project picks up where Darwin left off. It has re-created his study online using the same images, taken by French physiologist Benjamin Duchenne. Yes, they look like yearbook portraits from a sanitorium. But more than 18,000 participants’ evaluations have now been tallied, and the project may actually yield defendable results. And they include a dimension Darwin didn’t intend. “There are different emotional vocabularies and repertoires in different periods,” says Cambridge research associate Paul White. For example, whereas Darwin’s posse perceived the conveyed emotion in one image as “hardness,” today’s majority describes it as “bored”—a word that in the 1800s only described what you might have done to a piece of wood. Emotions, it turns out, vary not only cross-culturally but also cross-historically. You might say they’ve evolved.

This makes me wonder about the research of Paul Ekman, the inspiration behind the TV show Lie To Me and the author of the interesting book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. Ekman can identify micro-expressions, the almost instantaneous emotional reactions we have and display on our face before we try to cover them up (within a few tenths of a second). Are Ekman’s understandings of these expressions cultural and historically informed, meaning that his reading of micro-expressions 100 years ago or 100 years into the future would be less accurate?

This article hints at a fascinating topic: how are our own reading and naming of our emotions and those of others influenced by different social, cultural, and historical factors? Take the example above of boredom: did the concept simply not exist several centuries ago before individualism? This is related to but different from current debates about questions like what counts as addiction or what should be included in the new DSV-V manual.