OPINION28 April 2020

The limit of reading facial movements

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Behavioural science Features Impact Technology

Crawford Hollingworth, co-founder of The Behavioural Architects, looks at the pitfalls of researching facial response. 


Have you ever misunderstood someone’s mood or reaction? You thought you’d read their face perfectly, yet hours or days later found that they had been experiencing completely different emotions. Rather than anger or disgust, they were actually both sad and fearful. Similarly, your own mood or reactions might also have been misunderstood by someone else.

You might think it’s obvious that we can’t always accurately read someone’s emotions – after all, everyone’s different. Yet, traditional academic research in emotion science over the past 50 years has assumed that we can. In industry too, market researchers often try to gauge a consumer’s response to a product or service by assessing their emotive response via basic facial expressions. Many of the big tech companies even claim to be able to detect emotions from facial movements automatically using artificial intelligence.

But this approach merely detects and codes patterns of facial movements to categorise only a handful of emotions and emotional reactions to staged ...