Have a look at this pair of eyes. Please choose which word best describes what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling.
Is the person a) aghast b) baffled c) distrustful or d) terrified?
Now have a look at this pair of eyes. It`s the same person a few minutes later.
Is the person now a) as distrustful as before b) more distrustful c) a bit less distrustful?
The first image is one of 36 images in the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”, a tool developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, the cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen who is also known to be a renowned specialist on autism. The test is used as a measure for adult “mentalizing” which is described as the capacity of humans to assume mental states to other people. The test inversely correlates with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a measure of autistic traits in adults of normal intelligence. It is described as having “power to detect subtle individual differences in social sensitivity” and it is sometimes also described as measuring empathy.
So, what is the correct answer and how good are your social sensitivity and empathy? The correct answer for the first pair of eyes according to the test is “distrustful”. So, if you chose that answer, you can take it as a first hint to have good social sensitivity and empathy.
For the second pair of eyes, there is no correct answer, I just made the task up. Why that? Well…
Here is the full image of the second pair of eyes. It`s Claudia Schiffer on the cover of Penthouse magazine December 1993. Although there could obviously be reasons for her to be distrustful (for example not being sure if Yassir Arafat would be on the opposite page of herself being topless), I am quite sure that almost no person in the world would judge this face as distrustful.
The eyes in the first image obviously also show Claudia Schiffer, only the eyes are a bit more closed and the gaze is a few degrees less away from the central axis. I made quite an effort to find the first image but wasn`t successful. I guess that it is from the same series, so it might be inside Penthouse Magazine from December 1993. Thought of buying it, but a Penthouse Magazine from 1993 is quite expensive and when I imagined the discussion with the tax office if I can write it off as technical literature I decided to leave it.
But, still, if the second pair of eyes belongs to a magazine-smiling beauty who looks like that on every fifth photo, probably because it shows the concavity of her nose and still provides the essential eye contact, how distrustful can the first pair of eyes be? Is it so different? Put some candy in front of the first pair of eyes. Do they look distrustful now? Alfred Hitchcock wants to contribute some interesting insights about montage here. And I can`t escape the impression that there is no distrustfulness at all in the first pair of eyes as well.
Let`s see how this “Reading the mind in the Eyes Test” was constructed. Surprise, surprise, they took images from magazines! Then they attributed 4 different mental states to each image. Then these images with the four attributions were shown to 8 people. If 5 of the 8 people agreed on the one mental state that was chosen to be the right one, the image became part of the test, if less people agreed, the image didn`t make it into the test.
So, to be clear: No one ever tested if the people really had these mental states. It was just decided by the attributions of a majority. On the basis of what? It´s magazine photos, all the women look mainly sexy and the men a bit more natural, but nobody even knows how they look in a neutral state. So, how would you even know if something special is going on? This makes me laugh out loud and I want to ask: Have you ever observed people in the underground? They have all kinds of facial expressions which mean nothing specific. It’ s just them in mental default mode.
So, even if the results inversely correlate with other autism tests, the thing people with autistic traits are worse in here is probably not the correct recognition of mental states.
I have the modest impression that the whole “for each emotional or mental state there is a clear and distinct facial expression” thing is so terribly wrong that I would like to call it the phrenology of our times. Google “facial expression fear”. Then google “people watching 9/11” or “execution” or search for some WW2 photos. How come there is no similarity? How come the first search shows only actors making faces? What does the “universality” of a facial expression mean when it doesn’t become visible in larger amounts of data? We will have to do some big data research here. My bet: These things might be detectable in patterns that include time (consecutive sequences of images). But in photos probably not. Behaviour is not frozen into some easy-to-read expression, it´s a continuum.
Were it easy to read in real people, there would be no preference to watch actors instead of real people in the evenings when we are tired. Because that’s what actors do by means of concise plot, concise action, concise expression, concise behaviour: They make the whole social thing more easy to read. The fact that so many people aren’ t even able to recognize the difference between acting and real life behaviour only shows how little they are actually able to see. As long as it presses the same unconscious buttons it is perceived as the same.
I would go so far in my hypothesis that it might be worth to revisit the basic emotions, which seem to be quite acknowledged to have clear and universal expressions. “People who show this facial expression are joyful” doesn’t equal “All people that are joyful show this facial expression”. So, we might have to distinguish between perceptional universality (All people recognize the people who make distinct easy-to-read emotional faces in a similar way) and the universality of emotional expression itself which must be questioned. “Joyful people worldwide show this facial expression except when they don’t” would be a quite twisted claim for universality.
The interest in definite facial expression seems to be a thing that runs in the Baron-Cohen family. Simon Baron-Cohen’s cousin Sasha also did some field research. He tried to specify the pre 9/11 and post 9/11 facial expressions.
I find the approaches of both cousins equally scientific.