April 10th, 2003

Experiment Results


The question I posed in my recent photographic experiment was this: “I'm interested to know what you perceive in this self-portrait. Most specifically, what do you believe is the emotion that I'm expressing? Kind, unkind? Hostile, friendly? If I were saying a very short sentence, what do you imagine it would be?”

Thirty three responses (read more) tell me this isn’t as simple a subject as I first believed.

My purpose was to focus on a thought and see if an image of my facial expression would more or less convey the same thought to others. As I clicked the shutter, a woman very dear to me named Brad was in my mind, and I was whispering to her, “I love you.” (She died about four years ago.)

As the responses came in, I was surprised to see that they were entirely more centered on my perceived character than on what I might have been thinking. And I should quickly add that most of them were exactly right, which proves the notion that a photographic portrait can be enormously revealing. It can also mean that people’s perceptions are acutely sensitive and can read the most subtle of clues in another’s face, which is a genetic thing that comes down from verrrry ancient times.

Some further random thoughts:

One suggested that the experiment was similar to a Russian director’s work with actors being trained to express different emotions by thinking of things that provoke them.

Well, I had this partly in mind when I set up the experiment. I see from the great range of responses, however, that actors’ tasks are much more difficult than I’d thought. Which is to say that these folks have spent much time and effort honing their ability to display various emotions with a conscious manipulation of their facial expressions, and they make it seem effortless.

Another way of putting this is that I have no formal training in consciously making my face match either what I’m thinking or feeling, or what I want others to think I am. I’ve never been a good liar. (Sociopaths, on the other hand, are geniuses at lying and acting, largely because they have no conscience and therefore no shame or guilt.)

And finally, I’m starting to think that it’s much easier to show anger, impatience, boredom, etc., than to clearly display the various forms of love. But then that might be because the most important visual clues our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors looked for was hostile intent, because that was a life or death matter.

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