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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Linking Facial Expressions

Two studies about facial expressions have been reported by the BBC in the past few weeks.

Facial expressions 'not global' (14 August 2009). In research carried out by a team from Glasgow University, East Asian observers found it more difficult to distinguish some facial expressions. (Findings published in Current Biology journal.)

Delinquents 'misinterpret anger' (19 September 2009). A Japanese study of young offenders found they often misread facial expressions. (Findings published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health journal.)

I have not read the academic papers, but it looks as if there might be an interesting link between the two studies. There are some missing perceptions in some people (perhaps by culture and/or personality type), and these are linked to patterns of behaviour. The Japanese researchers are looking at personality type, while the European researchers are looking at cultural differences.

But how do such links ever get identified, especially as it is perfectly within the bounds of possibility that there is nobody who reads both of these journals? I only spotted it myself, because I read the second story and recalled having read something similar not long before, and because I was able to find my way back to the first story.

The first general point to pay attention to here is the process of memory retrieval, in this case involving a collaboration between my brain and a simple internet search.

The second general point is about the fragmentation of knowledge and the "architecture" of joined-up research. How do such accidental links influence not only what we happen to know, but also what becomes available to be known?


  1. There are I believe some (vary rare) people who can see through the obvious facial expression to see the geniune expression that reveals the true feeling of the person exhibiting the expression. The problem with studies of this type is that they take artificially acted expressions (or expressions that the researchers interpret to represent a specific emotion (and let's face it, researchers are not always the most socially adapted individuals) and then test whether others have the same interpretation as they do.

    One fundamental principle of scientific studies which potentially biases the result is that the researcher begins with a belief about the result and then sets out to prove that result. If researchers were more open minded than this, and looked at the raw information for patterns, unhindered by their own preconceptions there would not be the same need for others to join up the pieces of disconnected research to find a common and potentially useful answer.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Jon H Ayre
    The Enterprising Architect

  2. I agree that researchers are limited by their preconceptions. But even if we had wiser researchers, the problem wouldn't go away. I think there are some fundamental structural flaws in the way research is organized and knowledge shared, and we simply cannot expect (trust) individual researchers to transcend this paradigm.

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