Thursday, September 17, 2009

A very wise billionaire

A great deal of knowledge is gained by studying the faces we encounter. We may feel safe or threatened, we may empathize or distrust. All this is of course done immediately, in seconds and perhaps even in fractions of a second. So important is the knowledge gained from a face that the brain has a whole area devoted to facial recognition and to the recognition of facial expressions. But we still do not know how the brain evaluates a person from the many very rapid calculations that it must perform on the many details in a face. Indeed, we don’t even know precisely what these calculations are. But facial perception is being studied intensively by neurobiologists and we shall no doubt gain a great deal of interesting information about this perfected system.

When the brain detects a pleasant or nasty face – one to be avoided – it is of course doing so with respect to its own past experience. I often think that when we feel a certain danger in a face, of whatever source, we should trust our instincts and perceptions and ignore all other advice. For what may appear as a nasty face to one may appear as exceptionally pleasant to another. Each one according to his or her own experience.

We have all read stories about gigantic swindles being perpetrated recently, in schemes commonly known as Ponzo schemes. Some of those running these schemes must have had an extraordinary ability to look their customers (who in some instances were trusted “friends”) in the eye and know that they were going to swindle them out of all their money, without arousing any suspicion in the ill-fated customer. But not all were quite so naïve.

A friend recently related to me the true story of a billionaire who wanted to invest a huge sum of money in one of these schemes, which promised huge returns – of 10% or more. Apparently unlike many others who invested their millions with this man, our billionaire asked to meet the top man face to face before signing over his millions. His request was refused. He immediately cancelled the deal.

This was a wise man, one who trusted his instincts more than the judgment of those who recommended him to invest in such a scheme. But there is another side to the coin. Presumably, the many others who invested their millions – and lost – did so without studying the top man face to face. Or of course, they might have perceived danger signs, but other faculties – the reputation of those running the schemes, their past history, and so one – may have led them to over-rule their mistrust. Or, quite simply, some of us may have a less perfected facial recognition apparatus in our brains than others.

Whichever is the correct answer, perhaps we should all take the wise man’s action to heart and act accordingly in our dealings. After all, unlike many others, he is still swimming in his millions.


Ben said...

I guess that as well as the characteristics inherent in any particular face (which of course you cannot really influence) there is the manner in which emotions modify our expressions. Paul Ekman's work in this area is possibly the most influential, analysing and documenting the micro-expressions that flit across our faces every second of the day. How these micro-expressions are recognised and how their detection ties in with our empathy and fear circuitry is the subject of current research.

Neil Baird said...

Hi Professor

Like the wise man can I see your face - a picture tried looking on your site but could not see one.

all best