Facial expressions: we often read them wrong and then make huge mistakes

Both emotions and facial expressions are ancient instincts.

Human language and cognition have grown well-beyond ancient instincts. Grown beyond but also still affected by.

We have become more complex.

Today, we not only read instincts, we also read instincts into other people’s cognition through what they say, how they say it, how it sounds, how their faces move.

Which micro-expression is the right one?

The truth is we don’t know. Our readings of facial expressions in real-time, real-world situations are often wrong, often tragically.

Our cognition has advanced beyond our instincts but generally speaking it has not advanced far enough for us to generally recognize this fact.

Cultures and social groups deal with the ambiguity of facial expressions by being formal, wearing masks, emphasizing “face” or “saving face,” promoting respect or strong egos that can sell themselves through assertion of meaning, Botox, makeup, boobs, etc.

I think it is arguable that many/most/all people take on and use religion or philosophy in order to provide themselves with a generalizable set of emotions and facial expressions that can be employed in many situations. In this we can see how the architecture of our cognition (our philosophy/religion) is connected to our emotions and facial expressions.

Obviously, our reading of other people’s faces and emotions is not always wrong. If it were we wouldn’t do it at all. But our readings are wrong often enough that tragic mistakes are frequently made.

It is a pity that these truths are not more widely recognized. Browse almost any psychological forum and you will find many comments concerning the anguish people feel at having a condition that is widely misunderstood or misread.

At least they know what is going on.

This morning I saw this article: NEVER trust a person’s face: Scientists say it is ‘completely baloney’ that you can read people’s emotions from their expressions.

And that led me to search for this paper: Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements.

I am sure most, if not all, psychologists recognize the basic problem of our poor abilities at reading emotions, tone of voice, gesture, and even what we mean at all when we speak and act.

Does anyone know what to do about it?

Global Workspace Theory and mistake awareness & correction

Global workspace theory is a description of how our minds work. The word global refers to the whole mind or brain, not the world.

The central feature of this theory—the global workspace—is conscious working memory, or working memory that could be made conscious with minimal effort.

This global workspace is also what a great deal of Buddhist mindfulness attends to. If we focus our attention on what is coming in and out of our global workspace, we will gain many insights into how our minds operate.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness can be understood as a form (or percepta) entering the global workspace.

Consciousness is the fifth skandha in the chain of skandhas. It is very important to recognize that whatever we become conscious of is not necessarily right.

With this in mind, we can see that being mindful of what is entering and leaving our global workspace can help us forestall errors from forming and growing in our minds.

In the Buddhist tradition, ignorance (a kind of error) is the deep source of all delusion.

But how do I know if the percepta or bits of information entering my awareness are right or wrong?

Well, there is science and Bayesian thought processes to help us, and they are both very good, but is there anything else?

What about my actual mind? My psychology? My understanding of my being in the world? How do I become mindful and more right about these?

Besides science and Bayes, I can ask an honest friend who knows me well if the percepta I think I just received from them is right or wrong.

If my friend knows the game, they will be ready to answer me before my global workspace changes too much. If my friend confirms my interpretation of what they just did or said, I will know that my interpretation (or consciousness) is correct.

If they disconfirm, I will know that my interpretation was incorrect, a mistake.

This kind of information is wonderful!

We calibrate fine instruments to be sure we are getting accurate readings from them. Why not our own minds?

This kind of calibration can be done in a general way, but you will get a general answer in that case. If you want a precise reading, a mindfulness answer, you need to play the FIML communication game.

Game theory and trust

The game linked below explains some basics of game theory and also some basics of why FIML practice works so well.

The game can be found at this link: The Evolution of Trust.

I highly recommend playing this game. It takes about thirty minutes to finish.

For the first part of it, I was only mildly interested though the game is reasonably engaging.

When it got a point where communication mistakes are factored in, I sat up and took notice.

The game is a very simple computer model of some very simple basic choices human beings make all the time. Without giving away too much, even this simple model shows something I bet most of us can already see.

And that is: zero-sum games do not give rise to trust. Win-win games do.

What was most interesting to me is the game also shows that communication mistakes foster trust if there are not too many of them.

Accepting mistakes in communication requires trust. Mistakes happen. When two people accept that in each other and in themselves, trust grows.

This is a very important point and a foundation of FIML practice.

In fact, I would say that mistakes foster trust even more in FIML than other communication games. This happens because in FIML mistakes are isolated in such a way that they can be fully recognized and understood for what they are.

This provides a method for solving immediate problems while also building a foundation for the inevitable occurrence of future ones. Moreover, the kinds of mistakes people make become less stupid.

In many respects, the game of FIML is largely one of recognizing communication mistakes or potential mistakes as soon as they arise, within seconds of their onset.

By doing that FIML shows us how our deep psychology is actually functioning in real-life. Multiple insights into this aspect of psychology are transformational.

Free energy principle & interpersonal psychology

To be very brief, Karl Friston’s “free energy principle” says that the brain is an “inference machine” or “prediction machine” that uses Bayesian probability reasoning and is motivated to act by an inference seeming not true or “surprising” to it.

More can be found here and here.

The free energy principle is a straightforward way to explain what FIML practice does, how it does it, and why it works differently than any other form of psychotherapy and in many significant ways why it works better.

A psychological “complex,” “neurosis,” “personality disorder,” or “persistent thought,” call it what you will, affects human behavior by being or having become a nexus of thoughts, ideas, perceptions, feelings, interconnected neurons and chemistry.

The same is true for any personality trait or skill, including very positive ones.

In Friston’s free energy terms, the psychological elements described above are surrounded by Markov blankets.

That means they are isolated or protected systems with their own variables. These protected systems (protected by Markov blankets) are hard to change because they have their own sets of rules and habitual inputs and outputs.

And that makes them stubborn candidates for most forms of psychotherapy, especially psychotherapy that requires a therapist. One reason for this is time & expense. A second reason is it is difficult for the patient to change without therapeutically experiencing for themself the complex or trait in real-world situations.

The key here is therapeutic experience in the real-world of the unwanted trait or complex that requires change.

The third reason most psychotherapies are ineffective is very subtle incisiveness in real-time is needed to penetrate psychological Markov blankets.

What FIML does is penetrate the Markov blanket enshrouding a complex with a series of small pricks. Each prick in the blanket is small, but each prick also allows some of the valence (gas) inside the blanket to escape.

FIML slowly punctures the Markov blanket with many small pricks, eventually causing it to collapse.

Once it has collapsed, the energies that were trapped inside it can be used for other things. In this way FIML optimizes even non-neurotic psychology by removing pockets of inefficiency held within psychological Markov blankets.

By using only small pricks to penetrate Markov blankets, FIML allows people to gradually and painlessly see what needs to be changed, why, and how to do it. Since FIML works in real-time real-world situations, even very small insights can bring about large changes.

Speech behaviorism, a practical approach

The following are some basic rules for a practical behaviorist approach to speech.

Use real speech in Real-World, Real-Time (RWRT) situations.

Keep it simple by using only two people. Make it deep by using the same two people for years. No third person is needed or wanted.

Use only good data that both speaker and listener can agree on. For RWRT speech, this means only speech that is/just was in the working memory of both partners.

That is, both partners must agree on what was said and heard. If the listener heard “boo” and the speaker agrees they said “boo”, that is good data.

Partners must reach that agreement while keeping intact the contents of their working memories when the word “boo” was said/heard in RWRT. (This takes a little practice but is not that hard to do.)

Both speaker and listener can now analyze that data by discovering (through speech) what was in their working memories when they heard or spoke “boo”.

These simple rules bypass predetermined thoughts about what we believe we are saying or said, believe we are hearing or heard.

In so doing, these simple rules lead us gradually but very significantly away from surface speech (see: Time pressure encourages socially acceptable speech) to much deeper and more accurate communication between partners.

And this deepens partners’ sense of who or what they are across all domains.

That such simple rules can deeply change how we speak and hear and how we think about ourselves and others and how we understand the entire enterprise of human psychology, shows that—you might say—God exists, or the Buddha Mind exists, or profound other realms are available to human beings, that a deep sense of karma is real, that what we say matters, that not doing our best to speak the truth is what the Buddha meant by “frivolous speech” and he did so for a good reason because enlightenment itself lies thataway.

I think it’s delightfully paradoxical that simple behaviorist rules can lead us to having religious experiences.

Can we restate or add to Cogito ergo sum by saying: Recte loquendo Deum esse demonstramus? (By speaking properly we demonstrate that God exists)

Public language has problems similar to private language

Private language—what we say to ourselves, how we cogitate while alone—is greatly dependent on public language, that which is readily understood by many.

In fact, private language is so dependent on public language, it can be argued that a private language completely divorced from public language cannot exist.

It is obvious that anyone wanting to influence or control large numbers of people will address them in public language.

It is less obvious, that those same people frequently will also seek to change the public language itself.

Sometimes this language changing is a good thing as that is how civilizations adapt and grow. It is probably best, or usually best, when civilizational changes arise organically from the whole society or from important parts of society that are behaving honestly.

Sometimes, however, the changing of public language is done dishonestly by small numbers of people who have seized positions of power, sometimes precisely for that purpose.

They change public language to further their positions, ideas, or programs; to seize control of public topics; to seize or secure power over the public.

It is not as easy to parse this as it may seem. Who is restricting honest organic input into public language? Or when is organic input into public language itself but a ruse to falsely commandeer that language?

After Lenin and Stalin seized control of the public languages of the Soviet Union, we can see a clear-cut example of bad actors creating a basis for indoctrination. Before they seized power, we can see an example of a dishonest “organic” group seeking to commandeer control of public language.

And how do we see that today, through the lens of “history”?

Firstly, whose history? The same problem with public language arises.

Secondly, maybe we can never know. Maybe only societal laws or rules of governance can help us determine what’s right or best. But then the same problem arises.

Whose laws, whose rules?

In this sense both public and private languages have enormous problems basing themselves on anything.

What limits speech? In a word: Fear

If we consider speech with only one listener and look firstly at the micro level, we find it is fear of wrong word choice, wrong gesture, expression, demeanor, or tone of voice that limits our speech because a misstep with any one of these may transgress interpersonal limits.

At the meso level, it is either fear of offending or embarrassing (our understanding of) the “personality” of our listener or the fear of an actual flareup from our listener.

At the macro level, it is the fear of introducing a largish idea with sociological or career implications that might disturb, embarrass, or anger our one listener.

With more than one listener, the analysis is much the same though the numbers of people make it more complex, until we get to so many people we are speaking to an audience. Then it becomes simpler in some ways because the micro and meso levels will be less prominent due to distance between speaker and audience and there being no clear single target of our tone of voice or phraseology.

On the other hand, an audience’s response can be more complex and problematic because more than one person can become angry at us.

Human beings thus are stuck in a game that is controlled by how most of us listen most of the time.

Stated differently, human beings have magnificent speech and communicative capabilities, but rarely get to use them to their full, best effect because one or more of the many speech limits outlined above will cause us either to hold our tongues or else risk creating a disruption in the mind(s) of our listeners.

This seems like a Big Problem to me. I do not want to spend my life constrained by those rules. FIML can help us overcome this problem but even FIML cannot do it all.

We must also recognize that our very comprehension of meaning itself is grounded in fear.

Game theory and strategic equilibrium

In Game theory and interpersonal relations, I said:

…The end result of any particular model is called its “equilibrium.” Equilibrium implies no one will change their input if external conditions remain the same.

To refine that statement I should add that equilibrium in game theory really means “equilibrium of strategies” or “strategic equilibrium.” And this means that players, each acting in their own self-interest, have found the best strategy/ies to achieve the outcomes they desire.

When there is a strategic equilibrium, players will continue playing the game using the same strategies. And this will produce an equilibrium outcome.

An economic description of sharing focuses on an equilibrium of economic values. A game theory description of sharing focuses on the strategies that produce that equilibrium (which as a game may grow in many directions).

In the interpersonal game of FIML, the best strategy has already been determined. It can be found at How to do FIML.

FIML practice is based on an agreement between players to be (strategically) scrupulously honest in small matters involving only the contents of their working memories. This strategy includes saying, : “I do not want to answer that question right now.”

A very interesting side of FIML practice is either player could cheat by only pretending to follow the FIML honesty rule. Since the FIML game is designed to provide ongoing insights into your own psychology as well as your partner’s, I believe most sincere players will at some point discover that not cheating is by far the best strategy.

I do think many fundamentally honest people will be tempted to fudge their FIML replies for a period of time because that is how we all have been conditioned by our various societies, none of which has ever practiced FIML.

Rather than practice scrupulous honesty in very small matters with just one person, many of us will tend at first to avoid even that minor discomfort, remain the same, preserve our personas, withhold information, and so on. We do this because that is how all societies have conditioned their members.

There are two possible fudging scenarios in the FIML game:

  1. one player fudges
  2. both players fudge

If the fudging player is fundamentally honest, I believe they will come to see that they are harming themself as well as their partner; and that their best strategy is to fudge no more.

In the worse case scenario where both partners fudge, I am pretty sure that in most cases the fudging will gradually be eliminated because:

  1. partners will fudge at different times, on different occasions often enough to
  2. see that the value of hearing an honest reply or speaking an honest reply is much greater than not doing so
  3. additionally, both players will come to see that FIML outcomes accumulate, grow, feed on themselves (self-catalyze), thus compounding and multiplying benefits for both players over time

All the rules and moves and strategies used in FIML are out in the open and known to both players. The good results of playing honestly and well will become very apparent to players the more they play the game.

FIML as described on this website has very few rules and almost no content. In this respect, the FIML game you play with your partner will quickly become unique to the two of you. Not only are you with someone you love, but also you are now able to play a wonderful game of mutual and shared self-discovery. Where is goes, only you two will decide.

For this reason or these reasons, I think FIML could be called the Most Magnificent Game. It has few rules and almost no prescribed content and as such it will draw the best out of both players concerning the world’s most interesting subject: who am I and what the fuck am I doing here?


What if your partner is a psychopath?

From the above, it should be clear why it is important to have a FIML partner that you care about and who cares about you. What happens if you have a psychopathic or dark triad person as a partner?

A pure psychopath with little or no malice might benefit from the game and even enjoy it. A dark triad person probably will not agree to do the game. If they do agree to play, they probably will not be able to do it well enough to fool you. I do not know what to say about a dark, hostile player who succeeds in using the game to harm an honest partner. I hope that never happens, but I suppose it will.

Players who know they want to be honest and play well would do well to be on-guard in the beginning. For a time, you could honestly conceal any suspicions about your partner with the reply, “I don’t want to answer.” After a time, though, you probably should begin exposing your suspicions in very small matters. You may (very happily) discover the suspicion was your problem and not your partner’s.

If the problem is your partner’s and your suspicions are correct though not certain in your mind, I am reasonably sure that FIML replies and discussions are such that you will gain a great deal of insight into yourself and your partner and that your judgement in this area will tend to lead toward a good outcome for both of you. Either you will be able to help your partner or you may conclude that your relationship cannot go any further.

Game theory and interpersonal relations

Game theory uses models to understand how people interact under predetermined conditions or rules.

The end result of any particular model is called its “equilibrium.” Equilibrium implies no one will change their input if external conditions remain the same.

One way to make a game theory model is to reason backwards from the equilibrium you want. To keep it simple, there are two players.

Let’s say we want an interpersonal equilibrium that is honest, clear, and open to the dynamic reality of life. Here is a hypothesis: an equilibrium like that should also result in psychological optimization, psychological well-being for both players.

To achieve that equilibrium, my game model will be based on the following rules:

  1. communication will be as honest as possible
  2. communication will be as clear as possible
  3. all acts of communication (within reason) will be subject to clarification, revision, correction, and explication to the point (within reason) that there is no misunderstanding and whatever ambiguity remains is reduced to its lowest practical level

To do this, players will:

  1. focus on the smallest practical units of communication because error and ambiguity (which often leads to error) frequently begin at this level; this level includes: words, phrases, gestures, tone of voice, expressions, gasps, laughter, grunts, and so on; anything that communicates; all pertinent semiotics
  2. correcting error at the above level, which we will call the micro-level, ensures that small mistakes do not lead to large mistakes; it also teaches players how to correct errors at meso and macro levels of communication
  3. since human minds are limited in what they know and can communicate, and if players are diligent in following the above rules, players will steadily become more familiar with each other; how they speak, hear, think, what their references are, their values, beliefs, and so on
  4. if they continue to maintain these practices, they will build on their mutual familiarity, eventually achieving an interpersonal equilibrium that is honest, clear, and open to the dynamic reality of life

I have played this game with my partner for over ten years and can attest that it has worked even better than we had hoped.

Not only have we achieved an interpersonal equilibrium that is honest, clear, and open to the dynamic reality of life, but also what we hypothesized has come to pass: this equilibrium has also resulted in what feels to us to be psychological optimization and psychological well-being for both of us.

The rules to our game can be found here: FIML.

Note that initially FIML will upset your normal interpersonal equilibrium, whatever that may be. It cannot be otherwise. Note also that the rules of FIML will help you find or create a much better equilibrium.

If FIML is undertaken in a spirit of exploration, creativity, and fun, it will tend to self-generate or self-catalyze many new insights into your psychologies and how you interact with each other.

The ultimate FIML equilibrium is a dynamic one that keeps both partners open to the dynamic reality of life. With little or no “content” of its own, FIML rules allow partners to adapt to or create any “reality” they want.

Once understood, FIML is pretty much only difficult in the very beginning because in the beginning it will upset your normal interpersonal equilibrium. By doing FIML, you are choosing to change your normal equilibrium to a more efficient one.