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Lies In Your Smile Uncovered by Computer


“Beware of your smile: it may betray you.”

The lead in a recent Time Magazine article speaks to an MIT study that determined the sincerity of participants’ smiles. It goes beyond the sweet, mischievous smirk when you’re teasing someone with a secret and delves right to the heart of the smile you flash when you’ve reached the height of frustration. Frustrated, yet you smile?

The researchers who conducted the study said their goal is to help people with face-to-face-communication. From the article:

By analyzing measurements of the subtle differences between a smile generated by frustration and one born out of actual happiness, the computer program has so far shown a better success rate than human observers in figuring out the emotional state of their subjects.

Though well-intended, it begs the question: are some things better left ambiguous?

Dr. Robert Feldman, author of The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, asserts that lying of any kind comes with a cost. He makes little if any distinction between what we generally consider malicious lies, and ones that aren’t intended to be malicious. But if you had to categorize it, is it fair to say smiling despite frustration falls under the “not a malicious lie” category? Totally.

It’s not the same as a lie told to make someone feel good. Smiling out of frustration is a mechanism used to delay or diffuse potential conflict. It takes skill and a thorough understanding that its use is meant as a temporary fix — generally for expediency.

Too often we find ourselves with a friend who has opened her big mouth to reveal something we’ve told her in confidence. Our natural instinct is to pinch her. Instead, we flash her a smile that’s a little too wide and lasts a little too long and we hurry the conversation to a new topic. Social grace. Expediency. Mission accomplished.

From what it seems, this isn’t the type of thing the study wishes to uncover. It’s unlikely that at any point in the future we’ll all carry a device to help us detect the sincerity of each others’ smiles. So it’s hard to determine how a computer that can accurately gauge moods would be used.

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