Love Letters to Ourselves

What amount of selfies get posted to social media daily? The choices are 100 million, 500 million, and 1 billion. What’s your guess?

The correct answer to this week’s quiz is 100 million. As a percentage of the 2 billion images uploaded daily to social media daily, that’s only 5%. Nevertheless, 100 million is a lot of selfies in an era when it’s also estimated that every 3rd photograph taken by an 18-24 year-old person is of themselves. In 2006, Time magazine’s person of the year was “You.” That same year, Facebook became available to anyone with an email address and the selfie-stick was invented. Every selfie has been described as a “love letter to yourself,” and Rod Stewart has sung that every face tells a story. Bringing all of these—and more—fascinating strains together regarding what is happening within popular culture is Jessica Helfand in her fascinating, visually-rich book Face: An Visual Odyssey. Check it out!

Released today: episode #58 of my podcast series “Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight,” featuring Helfand and her book published by MIT Press in 2019. Click here to get to the new episode. 

Image of author Jessica Halfand and an image of her book "Face: A Visual Odyssey" for Dan Hill's EQ Spotlight Podcast episode #58 "Love Letters to Ourselves".

Jessica Helfand is a designer, artist, and writer. She taught at Yale University for over two decades, and has had additional roles at a variety of institutions ranging from the American Academy in Rome to the California Institute of Technology. Helfand also cofounded Design Observer.

Dan Hill, PhD, is the president of Sensory Logic, Inc.

And You Thought Your Office Was Crazy

In the TV show “The Office,” Michael Scott and crew at the Scranton, Pennsylvania branch of the mythical Dunder Mifflin Paper Company exaggerate – only somewhat – the petty, irrational craziness of office life. Who needs a logical plot? Steve Carell’s character, Michael the boss, provides much of the rising and falling action himself through his eyebrows. They rise in alarm at a problem (often of his own making) and knit together as he arrives at yet another, bogus solution.

Other key players include: Michael’s frequent henchman, Dwight, who when not stunned by misfortune is mostly angry and all action; Pam, alternatively alarmed, annoyed and resolute; and her softer-shoe husband, Jim, who can be shy (eyes down) or fearful (mouth pulled wide) when he’s not displaying one of trademark his lopsided grins.

Office life as we’ve known it may never return to what it once was pre-coronavirus. A place of camaraderie and courtship, the workplace is also a setting where we see office politics play out before our eyes. Can we discern where the power really lies quite as easily via Zoom? I doubt it. What won’t ever change, however, is that people can be both fascinating and frustrating: each of us our own “house of mirrors.” That reality informs the videoclip that follows, as well as my podcast episode for this week.

Released today: episode 5 of Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight featuring David Robert Grimes, author of The Irrational Ape: Why flawed logic puts us all at Risk, and How Critical Thinking can save the World. Listen to the clip below and click on the image to get the new episode.

Audrey Hepburn’s Emotional DNA

Audrey Hepburn's emotional DNA

For the next year, I’ll be highlighting the celebrities I covered in my book Famous Faces Decoded. First up is film star Audrey Hepburn, born on this day in 1929 and perhaps most famous for starring in the movies Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Which two emotions most characterize Hepburn? The people I surveyed for my book thought the answers were happiness and joy. How accurate were they? Happiness, yes plenty of low-grade smiles. Joy? No, Hepburn’s second signature emotion is instead fear. People’s accuracy for assessing this movie star’s emotional DNA was 50% correct. Note her raised eyebrows and widened eyes, both signs of her characteristic fear.

The 2010s: An Often Brutal Decade

Politically, the decade began with the Tea Party revolt against taxes, big government (Obamacare) and, yes, our country getting its first African-American president. Racism was part of the undertow. Now the decade has ended with Donald Trump being impeached, and my looking back fondly to the words that punctured Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career in 1954: the lawyer for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, saying “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness . . . . Have you no sense of decency?”

Substitute Trump for McCarthy, and you’ve got it in a nutshell: cruelty, recklessness . . . an unhinged mafia boss in The White House. Is it any wonder that the 2010’s also ended with a movie celebrating the epitome of a kind soul: Mister Rogers, the antithesis of twitter-carpet-bombing Trump. Did Tom Hanks fit his latest role well in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Not entirely. There’s too much guardedness in Hanks to pull it off entirely. His eyebrows lower more, with a vertical pinch between them. Other tendencies get in the way, too. Hanks’ eyes narrow more (angrily) than was generally true of the real-life Mister Rogers, and Hanks’ upper lip flares with a scorning disgust that, frankly, isn’t very good-neighborly.  Contrast Hanks’ look to Mister Roger’s truly joyful smile that includes more relaxation around the eyes.

123019-01 Tom Hanks & Mr Rogers2

Nevertheless, Hanks’ version of Mister Rogers is preferable to another look I can’t quite get out of my mind. Toward the end of Fidelity’s recent TV spot called “Straightforward Advice,” the woman in the couple shows a big-time smirk. Yes, the 2010’s have featured a booming stock market, first under Obama and now under Trump. I’m all for prosperity, but wealth a little more equally distributed across society would certainly be nice. To me, it’s as if the woman’s assured glance over at her husband signals: “I’ve got mine.” It’s a very smug look, too befitting of a president whose thought-pattern sadly revolves around I-me-mine as our era’s sense of collectivity withers.

123019-02 Fidelity Spot Smirk

Credibility Gaps – and One Key Exception

It’s been a rough week in some quarters. Take Facebook, for example. The latest news is that the Federal Trade Commission is in negotiations with Facebook regarding a possible multi-billion—that’s BILLION—dollar fine regarding the company’s privacy practices. Should you have any doubts that this has been a long standing problem for Facebook, go to this link of Mark Zuckerberg trying to answer questions on this very topic at a Wall Street Journal D8 conference in 2010. The face of Facebook’s founder says it all.

https://www.wsj.com/video/d8-facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-full-length-video/29CC1557-56A9-4484-90B4-539E282F6F9A.html

The video shows a sweaty, ill at ease Zuckerberg doing a great impersonation of Richard Nixon’s disastrous first debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Here’s the blow-by-blow account, in facial coding terms. Look for resentment about the topic of privacy being raised at second 9 (tightened lips); followed by an (avoidance) glance downward at second 20; furrowed eyebrows at second 47; Zuckerberg starting to dissolve into sweat by or before the 1:47 mark; then outright fear (mouth pulling wide) just before the 2-minute mark; and finally Zuckerberg being helped to strip down to his T-shirt because he’s having such a sweaty “Nixon moment” by the 3-minute mark.

How about Mike Pence? Did he have a good time at this past week’s Munich Security Conference? I’d say not based on the deafening silence that followed his telling the audience: “I bring greetings from . . . Donald Trump.” After about five seconds of waiting for applause that never came—not from a single attendee—Pence resumed his remarks. (Later, the White House added a fake-news applause annotation to that part of the official U.S. transcript of the event.)

Besides Zuckerberg’s faux commitment to consumer privacy and the Trump administration’s faux commitment to diplomatic cordiality (except when Kim Jong-un is involved), another credibility gap emerged this past week in Chicago. Yes, the saga of Jussie Smollett being allegedly attacked by two men late at night continues to mystify. When Smollett was being interviewed by ABC’s Robin Roberts, the “Empire” actor repeatedly pinched his eyebrows together in a show of being indignant about having his account of events be doubted. Well, that expression signals fear as much as it does anger, fear . . . as in possibly fear I’ll be found out. The latest word is that odds are Smollett staged the attack. His motive: gain more attention because a racist letter sent to the show’s studio hadn’t gotten a very big, supportive reaction from executives on-site. As the saying goes, stay tuned for more.

Finally, where did credibility endure? On 60 Minutes, Andrew McCabe didn’t come across as “deranged” (despite Trump’s tweet to the contrary). Only in recounting Trump calling his wife a “loser” did McCabe show a strong response: an upper lip flaring in disgust and anger. Otherwise, McCabe was emotionally buttoned-down and all business. No leisurely, “executive time” for this guy! Now that the cabinet is reduced entirely to lackeys, even the 25th amendment can’t shortcut the constitutional crisis likely to unfold in the months ahead.

Harvey Weinstein: Hollywood’s One-Man Battering Ram

Long before the #MeToo movement justifiably roared into existence, these lyrics caught the essence of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Sung on the 1987 Trio album by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, they portray a man (any man potentially) who doesn’t hear “no” from his victim. Only his own “yes” matters to him.

It’s hard not to believe that such a man is the media mogul who co-founded Miramax and became a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood over the past 30 years.

More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse. Yet it wasn’t until The New York Times and The New Yorker broke the story in October 2017, leading to first the creation of #MeToo movement and ultimately to Weinstein’s arrest and pending trial in September in New York City, that the mogul’s power in Hollywood finally dissipated.

What kind of man engages in repeated alleged rapes, at least three of them involving bullying or barging into an actress’s hotel room or apartment? You might be tempted to conclude that excessive anger accounts for Weinstein’s alleged behavior. But I’m a professional facial coder, somebody whose expertise is studying facial muscle activity for the emotions it reveals, and that’s not what I see in Weinstein’s case.

For my latest book, “Famous Faces Decoded,” I analyzed the expressive patterns of 173 celebrities (powerful, highly successful people just like Weinstein), 70 percent of them guys. The amount of anger Weinstein shows is greater than what female celebrities show on average, but not higher than what the typical male celebrity reveals. The same is true of contempt, an emotion typically defined as a combination of anger and disgust, which reveals a lack of trust and respect for others.

So what does Weinstein’s face distinctly show compared to those male celebrities I studied? Far more joy, alongside far less sadness and surprise.

Of course, there is no emotional template that reveals who among us might be prone to sexual misconduct. It’s not that easy to predict behavior. That said, what might be emotionally notable about Weinstein?

First, compared to other famous men Weinstein feels only half as much sadness. While sadness is usually thought of as a “negative” emotion, sadness can also play a constructive, positive role in terms of inspiring empathy for others. Furthermore, sadness tends to slow us down and make us reflect on what’s gone wrong (so we don’t repeat past mistakes). In Weinstein’s case, it would seem the mogul doesn’t naturally slow down – nor does he learn from past mistakes. He repeats them, which would help to explain how over 80 women have accused the guy of sexual misconduct.

On a second, related note, Weinstein shows far more joy than his fellow male celebrities. What’s wrong with exhibiting intense happiness? Nothing, except that elation can make you oblivious to details, not all of them minor matters, like the suffering you might be imposing on others.

Finally, there’s another crucial emotional clue that could be derived from Weinstein’s signature facial expressions: his lack of surprise. As an emotion, surprise means you’re looking around (eyes wide open, for instance), noticing the feelings of others you’re with. Compared to other famous men I’ve studied, Weinstein shows almost no surprise at all. Instead of Weinstein’s eyes being wide open, taking in information, his right eye often remains tight and narrow, a sign of somebody suffering from “tunnel vision.”

A lawyer named Lisa Bloom who has consulted for Weinstein describes him as “an old dinosaur learning new ways.” But given the hotel and apartment doors Weinstein has forced his way through over the years, I might favor a different comparison.

How about a battering ram: the heavy beam used to breach fortifications in ancient times? To me, that better describes Weinstein, a man who didn’t create the “casting couch” but who might have been only too happy to enact a more violent version of it while maintaining to this day that he hasn’t ever engaged in any “non-consensual sex.”

The Empire Strikes Back: When Harry Weds Meghan

“Royals can marry chorus girls and sometimes even Americans” Prince Harry apparently said before the wedding, giving me hope that this wasn’t just a paint-by-numbers “fairy tale” marriage. Nevertheless, let me first give credit where credit’s due. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of royal wedding hoopla, but this was truly a stunning spectacle that the newly-minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex pulled off. The ceremony itself was innovative instead of a rote exercise. The genuine affection on display between the couple was something Lady Diana and Prince Charles could have only dreamed of. And afterwards, the majestic carriage procession through the narrow streets of Windsor was about as intimate an affair as possible considering the scale of the event.

Naturally, as a facial coder I couldn’t resist assessing Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s feelings on their big day, starting with the groom’s wait for his bride. Was Harry a little nervous? Not outside the church, but once he and his brother, William, stepped indoors the (relaxed) smiles previously evident began to flicker on and off like a lighthouse beam. The latest smile would go on, only to be replaced by either a mouth-pulled wide expression of stage fright or else a sigh accompanied by lips pressed together in apparent annoyance at having to stand-on-ceremony, not a natural occurrence, especially given Harry’s mischievous, cheeky nature.

For most of the ceremony that followed, your eyes weren’t deceiving you if you saw a radiant bride and a more solemn groom. Harry’s been on stage all his life, as a royal, but now his eyes were blinking or else downcast, his eyebows often furrowed in a look of pained concentration, and it wasn’t until Harry lifted Meghan’s veil that the couple—in unison—managed a joyous, true smile. Until then, Meghan, the professional actress, was the one best holding it together with an almost seamless series of modest, equal-to-the-moment smiles. The lifting of the bride’s veil qualifies as an expected “highlight.” That’s not so true of the impassioned sermon that followed.

Now things got interesting. The choice of Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American to serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Church, to deliver the sermon was already notable in itself.  But it was the performance he gave that almost stole the show. Leaning in, Curry wasn’t doing so to recall whatever text appeared on the high-tech tablet lying in front of him. No, Curry clearly knew his message by heart, and I do mean by heart.

Curry let loose with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., to slavery, to reminding the assembled audience that “love is the way.” Prince Harry mostly smiled along, with a few smirks. By contrast, Meghan’s eyes shot wide open with surprise and anxiety at times—like she was getting even more for “her money” than she could have imagined. It’s an expression that also shows some anger, as Curry went on at some length, while Camilla looked on, mouth agape, seemingly bewildered, and other members of the English royal family arched their eyebrows and allowed themselves faint, pert ironic smiles. No passion, please; we’re British, was all but the signal being given.

You could say the entire wedding event was a case of the Empire Strikes Back. Who but the British royal family could stage a resplendent spectacle like this one? Then again, saying The Empire Strikes Back could also apply to former subjects as equals: a thoroughly integrated wedding ceremony—starting with Meghan, a biracial American bride, and extending to elements like a black gospel choir singing “Stand By Me.”

When the British Empire was at its zenith, a century ago, the English firmly held sway over nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and land mass. Today the “empire” is mostly a collection of island outposts. The royals have held onto their many privileges, but even that may change someday.  Nothing is forever. Perhaps you noticed how Harry’s right eyebrow shot up in surprise and anxiety when asked to repeat two parts of the wedding vows? The first was “til death do we part.” The second? Well, that would be the promise that “All I have I share with you.”

Most Super Bowl Spots Didn’t Score a Touchdown This Year

The 52nd Super Bowl sizzled instead of fizzled, with a record amount of offensive yardage and drama down to literally the last play. Some years the ads that run during the Super Bowl are better than the game itself, but not this year. “A pretty lame year,” said one advertising agency president; “a little quiet” was the quote from another ad agency executive regarding the game’s first quarter, when often the best ads appear. Plenty of commentary will analyze why, but only here will you learn the biggest reason why so many TV spots, Super Bowl vintage or not, are losers year after year.

“I’m ready for my close-up” says the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of Hollywood’s most famous lines and yet one the agencies—and their paying clients—seem to forget all the time. With the average 30-second spot costing the sponsors over $5 million to air (over and above the production costs), Norma’s request isn’t just worth heeding; it’s essential.

For two decades, I’ve been a market researcher using the tools of eye tracking and facial coding to learn people’s intuitive, natural, see-and-feel response to TV spots— and the results are crystal clear. As much as 70% of people’s gaze activity centers on the actors’ faces, and a similar percentage of all the emotional response to a TV spot will be linked to viewers taking in the emotions shown on the actors’ faces—especially during close-ups—because emotions are, frankly, so contagious. What the actor shows (if authentically rendered), the viewers feel because in life we’re looking for personalities that interest and matter to us. In business, never forget that the words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same root word in Latin: movere, to move, to make something happen (whether a purchase or inspiring an employee to be more engaged).

A few spots this year heeded Norma’s request better than others. The Sprint ad full of robots with more animated faces than their stern human colleague was as close to a commercial with striking production values as any ad aired in the game’s opening moments. A Ram pick-up truck ad brimming over with Viking warriors offered us plenty of angry-faced close-ups of men who were as intense as they were lost. A T-Mobile ad used the strategy of resorting to babies or puppies by giving us a diverse rainbow of surprised, open-eyed infants.

But against those minor successes, the commercials shown during Super Bowl LII featured the usual reliance on lots of action—too much—with often too little reason to care. A Kraft spot showed us far too many faces, and too quickly, for any of them to light an emotional spark. (When will agencies stop being so enamored by machine-gun-paced editing?) And while Intuit’s “The Thing Under the Bed” ad wasn’t so bad, its “Noise in the Attic” ad failed to leverage the power of facial expressions by showing us a cloaked ghost, then a CPA’s tiny face on a laptop computer, and finally the equally distant face of a spooked homeowner opening his attic’s trap door to see what was going on. Emotionally speaking, the answer for viewers in their homes: almost surely nothing.

In that way, “Noise in the Attic” joined many of its fellow Super Bowl spots this year in being the commercially still-born equivalent of how Sunset Boulevard opens—with a man floating face down in a swim pool, utterly, irretrievably dead.

Oprah’s Phenomenally On-Emotion Golden Globes Speech

In life, we dance to the music, not the words. That’s a reality forgotten by those speakers who may get the words right, but don’t express their feelings in natural rhythm with their words. No matter how eloquent, they’re on-message, but not on-emotion: by failing to show the right emotions at the right time in sync with their words, they don’t move us nearly as deeply as they otherwise might.

And then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Let us note other good moments at the 2018 Golden Globes awards ceremony, from host Seth Meyers’ opening line (“Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen”) to Natalie Portman inserting “all-male” into her introduction of the Best Director nominees. But neither compares to Oprah’s tour-de-force on receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. Among the highlights of Oprah being on-emotion:

Eyes wide, in recalling the revelation of being a young girl watching Sidney Poitier receive Oscar for Best Actor in 1964: “I’d never seen a black man celebrated like that.”

Skin below the eyes wells up, in sadness, also expressed by a raised chin; both that upward thrust and the pressed lips show determination and fortitude simultaneously: Paying homage to women who have endured “years of abuse” because of “bills to pay and dreams to pursue.”

Lower lip pushes down and out in disgust: Beginning to recount the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman kidnapped and gang-raped by six white men in 1944, who weren’t ever prosecuted.

A welcoming though not obsequious smile in inviting support for the #MeToo movement from “every man who chooses to listen.”

After her eyebrows have been furrowed in concentration, a stretched mouth sounding the clarion call: “A new day is on the horizon.”

Ambitious Humor: Jerry Lewis & Dick Gregory

So, here’s a quiz involving two men: the son of frequently absent, on-the-road vaudevillians (Jerry Lewis,) and a kid raised in a single-parent household where poverty meant him and his five siblings didn’t “eat off the floor” because if “you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor” (Dick Gregory). These two major-league comedians passed away on adjoining days this August. Now for the first quiz question: which of them felt twice as much fear as his fellow funnyman?

Let’s assume you didn’t get fooled by Jerry Lewis at the height of his success, performing in The Nutty Professor (1963). In that movie, Lewis is at once both the inept, shy Professor Julius Kelp and the swaggering nightclub lounge singer Buddy Love. Was that hit a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or an echo of Jerry Lewis’s decade-long collaboration with Dean Martin; who can say for sure? Either way, the vote for greater anxiety should go to Dick Gregory, shown here with deep forehead wrinkles. As a stand-in for an ill comedian, Gregory got his big break taking the stage at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, where he faced a convention of frozen-food executives from the South. How did Gregory win over the audience members? Maybe most of all by telling them this joke: “This white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’” Gregory’s supposed reply: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

The next quiz question is, who showed the most anger of these two comedians?

It’s not even close. Described in a New York Times obituary as “A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage,” Lewis wins. Indeed, nearly half the emoting evident from a range of photos spanning his career involves anger. What Lewis’s on-stage and on-screen screwball capering partially hid was raw ambition and drive. Lewis wanted to control his own destiny. When his collaboration with Martin fell apart, Lewis and his dominating hand in shaping their routine was the primary cause. That set-back hardly gave the guy pause. Soon a record by Lewis reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart and, given a contract on his own terms by Paramount, Lewis would then direct five movies in five years. With the first of those movies, The Bellboy (1960), Lewis also invented the video assist: a still commonly used device that allows directors to review their output immediately on-set.

Lewis sought to be loved through achieving show-biz success, and his anger was expressed with tightened eyelids and lips pressed firmly together. In contrast, Gregory sought to pursue justice and while his anger could appear in ways similar to Lewis’s anger, more characteristically Gregory’s anger emerged from eyes wide and alert as well as through the contemplative vertical crease between his eyebrows. Prior to his extended contract at The Playboy Club, Gregory had worked part-time sorting mail in a post office, where he tossed letters intended for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” By 1962, Gregory had joined a protest in favor of black voting rights in that same Southern state, and a lifetime of social activism followed.

Gregory showed twice as much sadness as Lewis, and compared to Lewis’s many broad grins rarely ever offered more than a slight, wistful smile. He would perch on a stool on stage, hardly moving except to take a drag on his cigarette while delivering lines like, “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.” In comparison, Lewis’s forte was leavening his career-focused anger with big smiles and plenty of trust-nobody-and-nothing contempt. Lewis might well have enjoyed his success. But after having been passed among relatives as a boy, while his parents were away entertaining, Lewis had become a star who didn’t like to rely on anybody but himself. Note the tight smirk atop the right side of Lewis’s smiling publicity photo.

As to their respective legacies, Lewis is lionized in France. Why, the celebrated New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard even once declared Lewis to be greater than Charlie Chaplin. The explanation is that Lewis’s movies are seen by intellectual anti-intellectuals in Paris both as satires on American society and as Surrealistic exposes on the limits of language and reason. Here in America, however, Lewis never received a single Oscar nomination, not even for the more serious role of playing a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982).

Gregory fared no better in contests, if you count the 47,133 votes he received running for president in 1968 on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket. But Gregory had his successes, too, and plenty of sway. Gregory was part of the chorus chanting on John Lennon’s impromptu recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” and was a cross-over pioneer who reached white America before Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor got there. What Gregory didn’t care about was money, and the $2 billion that Lewis raised during the 40 years he hosted telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association separates these two men just as distinctly as does their very different emotional profiles.