A Conversation Nora Murphy

How much time does it take most of us to reach conclusions about others based on their nonverbal behavior?
We do it instantly, and researchers consider it a non-conscious process. We’re processing things in our heads outside of our awareness. When someone smiles, you don’t consciously say, “Oh, that person is smiling at me; I think he or she is friendly.”

When do we start learning how to do that?
Some researchers believe recognizing people’s expressions instantaneously has an evolutionary advantage. In the past, we had to know that the lion growling at us was not friendly, and we’d run away. People who have studied facial expressions know that children at a very young age of six months or younger can respond to a smile instantaneously and smile back.

What are some cues, or tics of behavior, that we interpret when reading expressions?
One cue is what researchers call micro-expressions — expressions that happen rapidly, and probably outside our awareness. In the face, muscle contractions are an example. If someone is serving me a meal I don’t like, I might have a feeling of disgust and make a micro-expression of disgust but then recognize that I need to mask that expression.

Does the ability to gauge nonverbal behavior change with age?
Yes, actually. In my research, we’ve compared the ability of people older than 65 to those younger than 25 in their ability to judge facial expression. Younger adults outperform older adults on negative emotions, such as sadness, fear or anger. One hypothesis is that as people age, they get better at regulating their emotions, and part of regulating one’s emotions is not paying as much attention to other people’s negative emotions. Older adults are better than younger adults at detecting false smiles, which is a measure of a positive emotion, and can better distinguish the fake smile from the genuine smile. The hypothesis is that as people get older, discriminating between a genuine and a fake smile is an experience effect. So older adults just have more experience at it.

Some public figures — government spokespeople, for example — seem to remove every nonverbal cue from their facial expressions when they speak to the media.
It can be cognitively [difficult] to try to control our nonverbal behaviors. Once you tell me I can’t show certain things, it becomes a cognitive “load.” So, on top of everything else I need to be doing, I have to mask. That’s hard. There is a term we use called nonverbal leakage in which people who are trying to mask leak out clues that they are not aware of.

If a student comes into your office to explain why his paper is late, does your training enable you to judge his truthfulness?
I would better be able to judge that based not on micro-expressions but on other cues I’ve picked up in my experience as a professor that tell me, “I’ve heard this excuse before.”