The Intricacies of Smiling

When it comes to political and emotional opposites, you can’t do much better than the Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi sideshow as they sat behind Donald Trump during the recent State of the Union speech. Pence has long ago mastered a look of supposed discernment as he takes in the wonders of Trump’s rhetoric. There are head-nods, yes, and smiles. But most of all there’s how a vertical crease forms between the Vice President’s eyebrows as he lowers and pinches them together as if trying to scoop up every pearl of wisdom. In contrast, the Speaker of the House looked like she was sucking on a lemon anytime she wasn’t instead rifling through the pages of the speech. Here, she’s giving the President a mock burst of applause.

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Did Pelosi do her level best to distract TV viewers from Trump’s words by handling the speech’s text as she did? Maybe she was just bored (the speech and Trump’s Mussolini-like thrusts of his defiant chin went on seemingly forever).  Trump’s almost never happy. At least he made some of the female Democrats in attendance pleased by mentioning the new jobs he’s created, namely, like theirs!

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As you can tell from the President’s displeased smiles, he wasn’t so happy to be upstaged. Happiness no longer seems to be what it once was. You can’t seemingly count on anything anymore.

Or maybe things were always like that. The two newly unearthed instances of Virginia politicians having gone the route of blackface should remind us that happiness isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Here is Al Jolson in the move Mammy (1930), inhabiting a fabled land where black folks are supposedly too dumb to be anything but happy all the time.

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While Jeff Bezos was busy pushing back against an apparent blackmail attempt by The National Inquirer, what else went on this past week? Well, for one thing we had Amy Klobuchar managing to do a great job imitating somebody happy to be declaring her candidacy for president amid a snow storm.

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Meanwhile, off in Europe her fellow Minnesotan, Lindsey Vonn, was managing to win the bronze medal in the world championship downhill in her final race ever. How remarkable was her success after a fabled career? Five days earlier she had fallen in another race, ending up with a bruised rib and a black eye. And three months earlier she had torn a ligament in her left knee, the one operated on something like a gazillion times.

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At least every now and again, a smile is still really a smile: the embracing of life!

On a Mission or Simply Under Duress

Let’s start with the good news, especially for those who live in New England or have become admirers of the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Akin to getting a smile out of Chuck Norris in a movie role, it’s downright odd—almost creepy—to see a smile from Belichick. There were some afterwards, but much more in character is Belichick here gripping the victory trophy, eyebrow cocked in wary appraisal of the world around him while his eyes and mouth are tightly gripped in a look of determination. Maybe when Brady turns 50, Belichick will tire of winning. Meanwhile, . . . the victories and trophies accumulate.

Who also won this soporific Super Bowl? Many think it was the Bud Light / Game of Throne mash-up. What’s the Bud Light Knight’s facial expression? In his everyman role, beer-drinker as knight saving himself from sobriety, Budweiser doesn’t want us to know. We should be projecting ourselves into the role. Is he happily soused and sporting a smile, or brandishing the equivalent of Belichick’s scowl? The great mystery lingers.

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If there are winners, there must be losers, too, and there were this past Sunday. One was the Rams’ coach, Sean McVay, who admitted to having been “outcoached” by Belichick.  Both coaches have their chins pulled up in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. The difference between them: notice also how the corners of McVay’s mouth are turned downwards, tilting the emotions displayed more in the direction of sadness for the moment. (Don’t worry, Rams’ fans: there’s determination being expressed as well, a determination to win again and often.) Besides the Rams, I think Burger King lost the Super Bowl. I’m sure some clever ad agency guy thought pulling out the old footage of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger showed his artiness, but mostly it revealed a lack of emotional intelligence. Time and again while eating the burger, Andy smirks—a sign of disrespect (for the product). It’s hard for the company’s offer to be the hero when it’s actually the goat (and I don’t mean GOAT as in Roger Federer being the Greatest Of All Time).

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Meanwhile, everyone’s running for president, inspired by Donald Trump’s example. If blatant incompetency and dishonesty can get you to the White House, why not give it a shot? Cory Booker has joined the Democratic field (looking delighted but not at ease), and maybe Howard Schultz is going to run an independent campaign. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal is Schultz’s promise. Whether a tepid smile and a lip turned down in disgust, as shown here, is an emotional formula for winning I doubt it.

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Who’s definitely going to lose? That’s easier to say. Playing a losing hand is an apt description of the ultimate fate of both Virginia governor Ralph Northam (looking mighty uneasy given the raised inner eyebrow, a sign of sadness and fear) and Venezuela’s leader Nicholas Maduro (trying his best to imitate Belichick, but the eyebrows pinched together give away Maduro’s existential fear of being shot by rebels within his own military). In Northam’s case, he held the most insane of press conferences last Saturday. Among the highlights, denying he was one of the men dressed up as a Klansman or in blackface in a medical school yearbook picture (after admitting the night before that, in fact, yes, that was him in the photo). A safe prediction: he won’t join the others running for the Democratic presidential nomination. In Maduro’s case, inflation is running at something like 10 million percent and there’s no food left . . . except at his residence. When people are literally starving to death en masse, rubber bullets won’t matter. Next stop, Moscow, Mr. Maduro, if only you’re so lucky.

020519-05 Northam & Maduro

 

From Incompetent Officials to Something’s Great (But It’s Not Trump)

Welcome to a very different version of “Faces of the Week.” Focusing on a single story per posting is, frankly, too limiting. There’s always so much of interest going on. So while the occasional posting may focus on a single specific story, by and large I’m going to move to a potpourri of stories, going with whatever catches my eye (and engages my heart).

Let’s start with incompetency and Brexit.

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Pity the British prime minister, Teresa May, as she struggles with plans B-Z now that Plan A was sounded defeated in Parliament. All the while, where, oh where is Boris Johnson, the man who helped lead the charge in favor of leaving the E.U. because the world would be coming up roses if England went its own way? As usual, he’s lost somewhere in his own mix of bluster and bafflement as to what it was he actually was thinking. “I said what?” seems to be the caption to many a moment of lip curling, mouth ajar Johnson caught on camera.

As pointed out in Pankaj Mishra’s article for The New York Times, however, a mediocre “chumocracy” has often ruled England. Case in point is Lord Mountbatten, whose hurried declaration of independence for India led to an estimated one million deaths as the country unraveled. The article came complete with this photo:

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From left seated at the table, Jawaharlal Nehru, vice president of India’s interim government; Earl Mountbatten, viceroy of India; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League, discuss Britain’s plan for India, June 2, 1947. 

As a facial coder, what struck me immediately was the anger on Jinnah’s face. Could anybody have imagined independence was going to be a cake-walk? More specifically, did Mountbatten even really notice the emotions roiling around him? He himself admitted the transfer of power he chose was a “ludicrously early date.” Then he gave the task of drawing the new boundaries to a British lawyer who had never visited India. Like Brexit, a mess was certain and that’s putting it mildly.

Speaking of incompetent officials, the stakes were a wee bit lower when the NFL official failed to call pass interference on this play late in the NFC championship game. Would you say that New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Peyton was stunned by the no-call?

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Seeking to move from U.S. Senator (D-CA) to the White House, Kamela Harris joined the ranks of contenders for the Democratic nomination this past week. With Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) already declared, how can Harris distinguish herself? For starters, she has the best smile of the three women. But a wide-eyed, on alert look is her other signature expression. Warmth and concern: it’s a great combination. My hunch is that of the three, she might prove the most effective on the campaign trail (time and the voters and the money raised will tell; remember what a 20th century Republican party boss said: Only two things matter in politics . . . money and I can’t remember the other thing.” Well, actually emotion is the other currency!)

012219-04 Kamala Harris Double

What was great in the past few days was this man, the rising Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, managing to beat his idol, Roger Federer, in a thrilling match at the Australian Open. “I’m the happiest man on earth” Tsitsipas said afterwards and it wasn’t hard to believe him. Just look at the elation on his face.

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Maybe the question of the week, however, was what was on the face (and in the heart) of the student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. to join an anti-abortion protest. Nick Sandmann said he stood this close to a Native American activist trying to step in between two opposing groups. No disrespect was intended, Sandmann said. But in wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) red hat, linked to Donald Trump and his disparaging reference to senator Warren as “Pocahontas” (among many other racist or all but racist remarks, over time), one is left wondering.

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The Native American shown here to the right, Nathan Phillips, sure felt uneasy about Sandmann being so in his face. There’s a slight smirk to the right on Sandmann’s face, and an upper lip curled in disgust. Despite the accompanying smile, it’s hard to reconcile Sandmann’s expression with the notion that no disrespect was intended.

What’s easier to judge for sure than Sandmann’s expression? That would be the look on the face of the Confederate soldier emblazoned on the digital sign outside his school back in Kentucky. Note the eyes tight with anger, and for that matter the street on which the school sits. I rest my case, even if Sandmann is still protesting his innocence.

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Pyeongchang Olympics Quagmire: The Crushing Success of Nearly Winning

One of the peculiarities of the Olympics is how the podium is structured, with the silver and bronze medalists typically standing at equal heights below the winning, gold medalist. Is that design meant to simulate a spirit of harmonious equality? Or is it actually a nod to the reality that silver medalists often feel more like they’re “second banana” than “second best” given high hopes of winning it all?

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The reaction of members of the women’s hockey team when Canada “won” the silver medal after a long history of Olympic success on the ice rink speaks to a common emotional reality. Note the downturned corners of the mouth of these players and their teary, unfocused eyes. Even more obvious was Jocelyne Larocque’s reaction: almost immediately removing the silver medal she received, only to later issue an apology for “letting my emotions get the better of me.” See The Washington Post’s coverage.

It’s not easy almost winning, as several studies have shown. Should you need evidence of that conclusion, check out:

Then again, coming in 3rd isn’t necessarily a picnic, either, as Slovenia’s Zan Kosir’s face confirms.

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Unexpected victories are among the sweetest, of course. The victory by the U.S. in men’s curling was astonishing, as the team’s jaw-dropping surprise looks confirm.

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To others, however, nothing has been more surprising than how much the U.S. athletes have struggled to reach the podium at this year’s winter Olympics in South Korea.  Theories of why America has been buried by Norway in the medal count range from “we always struggle” in events with names like Nordic Combined to having athletes this time around who are either too old to hold up physically or too young to handle the stress. What could be the way forward, at least emotionally speaking when buckling under stress is apparently a major issue? Based on my own studies of great athletes in my upcoming book, Famous Faces Decoded, as well as a previous blog on tennis stars, let me suggest a novel solution. Groom winners by having the U.S. Olympic trainers focus on developing athletes prone to disgust. A curling upper lip and a wrinkled nose are the classic signs of disgust, an emotion about rejecting what doesn’t taste or smell good: like not being a winner. My conclusion is that disgust, not anger, can propel athletes forward to victories as much as any other emotion around.

In that spirit, I noticed the reaction of Finland’s Livo Niskaen on winning gold in the 50-kilometer mass start event.  Note the raised upper lip that accompanies the whoop of joy.

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Michelle and Barack Obama’s Official Portraits: Emotive Pseudo-Realism

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The two smiles that stick in my memory and soul are not only Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile but also Barack Obama’s tender, joyful smile. From where Da Vinci’s masterpiece sits in its place of honor at the Louvre in Paris to a rented ballroom in Des Moines, Iowa, is quite a stretch. But in that ballroom in Des Moines the night that Barack won the Iowa caucuses contest in 2008, launching him toward the presidency, I watched and wondered at how he smiled as he greeted well-wishers. The smile on display that evening crinkled his eyes, vibrantly yet softly, with a conveyed sense of gratitude, wonder, and authenticity; absent was stern gravitas or over-the-top, hackneyed, thumbs-up waves to the crowd. Alongside him, Michelle Obama came across as even more subdued as well as humble and grateful.

So joining the nation in seeing the official presidential likenesses unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on Monday was something of a shock. I applaud both the former first man and first lady choosing distinguished African-American portrait artists to depict them, breaking the former monopoly of white artists depicting white presidents in mostly a vanilla style. In Barack’s case, Kehinde Wiley has gone with his penchant for painting other African-American subjects prior to Barack in fairly regal poses.  At the National Portrait Gallery installation ceremony, Barack admitted that Wiley had tried putting him atop a horse and a throne, before settling for a formal chair nestled amid greenery.

As to Barack’s smile, the one I saw in Des Moines that January evening has long ago been eaten alive by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who sought to obstruct Barack’s progress in office. The smile evident in Wiley’s portrait is slight and overwhelmed by seriousness. The eyebrows pinched and pulled down, the lower eyelids raised and taut, the lips pressing together firmly enough that a bulge is vaguely evident beneath the middle of the lower lip all contribute to a sense of a thoughtful, frustrated, even brooding man. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But where that comparison Barack invited himself by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois a decade ago breaks down is that instead of Lincoln’s sadness, here we have disgust hinted at by a slightly raised upper lip but mostly evident from how the cheeks pouch on either side of Barack’s nose.

Why the anger shown on Barack’s face? That isn’t his most signature emotion. A joyful, eyes- twinkling smile might qualify instead, or even more so than disgust the contemptuous smirk that crept into Barack’s facial expressions repertoire the longer he stayed in the White House. Is it that anger signals being in control, as indicated by the former president learning forward in his chair rather than drifting above and away from the partisan fray, as was to a fault Barack’s natural tendency?

As for Michelle’s portrait by Amy Sherald, it’s if anything even more unexpected.  The striking white patterned gown is arguably as much the focal point as the woman wearing it. But for me, it’s Michelle’s facial expression that intrigues most. The pressed lips, the narrowed eye, the cheek pouched on the opposite side of her face: in those ways Michelle’s feelings are shown mirroring those of her husband. But that I think is only, in part, who Michelle is emotionally. Outer eyebrows raised higher would more faithfully reflect her tendency to be surprised, even a little fearful, which she fights through with a big hearty smile that isn’t as effervescent as Barack’s smile at its best: more like beer with a good head of foam in Michelle’s case, as opposed to Barack’s champagne smile.

That said, there’s this final oddity about Michelle’s portrait: she’s in repose. Her legs seem to be crossed beneath the gown, and her head is resting on the upside-down palm of her hand in a way that to me suggests some measure of slightly dainty passivity. In short, the two portraits are a relief from the usual, vanilla-flavored portraits of past first couples. But if this pair of portraits doesn’t quite come home for me, emotionally, it’s because whereas Barack is portrayed as too tense and assertive, Michelle is portrayed as not as wide-eyed, innocent, and frisky as I believe she’s remained.

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.

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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.

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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.

An “Insidious Monster”: Olympics Gymnast Guru Dr. Nassar on Trial

The sentencing hearing for the disgraced sports medicine “guru” Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar has now finally ended in a Michigan courtroom, with judge Rosemarie Aquilina imposing a 40 to 175 year prison sentence. She delivered it with this news for Nassar: “I just signed your death warrant.”  In all, over 150 women—U.S. Olympic gymnasts in particular, as well as dancers, rowers and runners—testified against Nassar during the seven-day hearing, but questions linger.  How could this sexual abuse have gone on for over two decades? To what degree if any did Nassar’s employers, including Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympics Committee, turn a “blind eye” to what was happening? Those are among the obvious questions. But another is wondering what the face of the man called an “insidious monster” by the mother of one of Nassar’s abuse victims might reveal. Did Nassar show signs of remorse as he listened to his victims testify?

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012418-02 Larry Nassar Combo (resize)

That last question is the easiest to answer. As might be expected given the tear that rolled down Nassar’s cheek in court the other day, sadness and fear constituted nearly half of the emoting the guy showed in court. But right alongside those two emotions was an equal amount of surprise and anger, plus truth be told an occasional slight, would-be Mona-Lisa type smile. Remorse? Yes, apparently. Fear? Why not, given that Nassar had already received a 60-year sentence for child pornography and surely knew that the newest sentencing would be even more severe.

Nassar’s other three emotional responses, however, were at first blush bewildering. Could he actually have been surprised to learn about the physical and psychological pain he inflicted? Did the anger mean that to some degree Nassar was resisting the validity of the graphic stories being shared in court (if even just out of psychological self-preservation)? And most of all, what about the slight smiles? One can only hope that deep-seated chagrin masquerading as muted happiness explains those expressions.

One other question remains. From his photographs publically available over the past two decades, did Nassar ever betray by his emoting patterns a hint of what has ultimately unearthed regarding his abusive conduct? There, the answer is equally clear: no. Various degrees of happiness, and not enough anger or fear to raise a red flag was the emotional portrait on display in the years preceding the trial. The patterns here aren’t new. The case of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University is an obvious antecedent. But farther back in time, so is what Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi’s Final Solution for the European Jews unfortunate enough to live—and die—within the borders of the Third Reich. Not a monster but somebody instead “terribly and terrifyingly normal” is how she described the man sentenced to hang in Israel, in coining her much-debated term: “the banality of evil.”

 

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Minnesota Miracle Brings Range of Emotions to NFL Fans

It takes two players, working in tandem, to complete a pass play, let alone a desperation pass in an NFL playoff game with time expiring.  But afterwards, quarterback Case Keenum and receiver Stefon Diggs weren’t on the same page emotionally.

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011518-04 Stefon Diggs

After the 61-yard completion, a stunned Keenum kept saying “Oh my God.”  In contrast, Diggs, devoutly assured that God’s will had shown its hand in a play that marked the first ever, fourth quarter walk-off victory in NFL playoff history, was instead proud: a mixture of happiness and resolute anger.  As for the Minnesota Vikings’ long-suffering fans, there were tears of joy and relief.  After four Super Bowl losses, four NFC Championship losses, blown field goals in playoff games (29-yards against Seattle in 2015; 44-yards against Atlanta in 1999) how could any of their fans have welcomed another field goal attempt in order to win the game against the New Orleans Saints?  The Saints’ Mardi-Gras fans often party; Vikings fans normally weep.

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Week 1, 2018: Trump and Bannon Feud, Saban and Smart Prepare to Do Battle, and Thiel Gets Even Richer

Grumpy Old Men

010518-01 Steve Bannon

While North and South Korea try talking out their differences, war has broken out elsewhere here at the start of 2018. Don’t expect Donald Trump and former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to be talking again anytime soon (except through lawyers). In Michael Wolff’s newest  book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Bannon gets quoted calling Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous,” Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick,” and the president himself likely to be in legal trouble for money laundering.  For his part, Donald Trump is suggesting that Bannon has “lost his mind” and is “simply seeking to burn it all down.” Despite the verbal warfare, it’s not just the nationalist-populist, alt-right movement the two men brought to the White House that links them, however. They also remain strikingly similar in emotional terms: precious little happiness, above-average disgust and—most of all—a wealth of sadness, all the better by which to instinctively appeal to those who want America to be made “great again.” With a now backtracking Bannon reminding folks that Trump is “a great man,” Bannon looks to be the likelier of the two feuding men to be adding soon to his natural store of regrets, disappointments and all-around woe.

Close Quarters?

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Some scores get settled in courtrooms, other scores emerge on a football field. With the national college championship getting decided this year by a game between Alabama and Georgia, the official word is that there’s “nothing personal” about a contest that pits Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban against his long-time assistant Kirby Smart. Eleven is the key number here. For 11 seasons, Smart helped Saban amass victories; and 11 times, Saban’s former assistants have come up against him and lost. Will this time be different? It could be. Already, Smart’s won one battle: Just two seasons after Smart left Alabama, Georgia finds itself now atop the 2018 recruiting class rankings, with Alabama in fifth place. So if Smart can’t win this year, maybe next. What might be helping Smart lure the best players? It could in part be as simple as the fact that emotions are contagious, a principle that carries over into happiness. Smart shows a third more happiness than Saban does over the course of patrolling sidelines and sitting in press conferences. Smart also smirks less. Are those kinds of emotional tendencies just plain, well, smart? Do they not only possibly help win over high school players and their parents, but also help settle a team down and lead to victory? We’ll find out after the kick-off if the underdog Bulldogs of Georgia can keep the game close. (Saban’s 11 victories against former assistants have all involved wins by a margin of at least 14 points.)

Serious Money, After All

010518-03 Peter Thiel

Back in my junior high days, a friend and I printed our own currency, Krump Notes, all the better by which to bet on poker games at lunchtime in the cafeteria. We didn’t want anybody’s nose getting bent out of shape by losing a pile of real cash on a losing hand. Now comes word that PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel is sort of all in when it comes to Bitcoin. Thiel’s Founders Fund has amassed holdings of between $15 and $20 million (chump change for Thiel, actually) in Bitcoin during 2017, causing the newly disclosed holdings to inspire a 13.5% climb in the virtual currency’s value after some recent volatility in its outlook. Thiel could yet take a bath on Bitcoin, but don’t bet against him. From bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s suit against Gawker to seeing his candidate take the White House, Thiel’s on a roll. What kind of person can be so successfully opportunistic again and again? To me, with Thiel it’s all in the eyes. Some years ago, I decided to investigate what might help make somebody a great lead-off hitter in baseball. The strongest statistical pattern in terms of facial expressions was a tendency to come to the plate with eyes open wide, seemingly looking for gaps into which to poke the ball. Think of hunters. Think of Derek Jeter. Think of Peter Thiel. Think about Cooperstown’s heroes or Silicon Valley’s serious money entrepreneurs, or me with my former stash of Krump Notes: same stratosphere, not really.

Gut Check: Federer, Nadal & Williams

A couple of years ago, I met Chris Evert at her tennis academy in Florida when I was there to address her student athletes on the topic of what it takes, emotionally, to be a champion player. Evert quietly joined the meeting and before long piped up to ask: “How about anger?” Yes, anger matters I answered: grit, determination—the urge to fight through tough patches and control your destiny. Yes, certainly anger matters. But where I lost Evert (I could read it on her face that she checked out) is when I added that after everything was said and done, anger was nevertheless but a part of the picture. For instance, to take the example Evert then raised—Serena Williams—disgust matters, too.

It’s hardly a complete list of the all-time greats who have won multiple grand slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open). But here are how some of the best-ever players have fared, and which of the negative core emotions they score especially high or low on compared to what’s typical over a range of hundreds of famous people, sports stars and non-sports stars alike. (As to happiness, by the way, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King distinguish themselves by feeling intense happiness much more often than is usual across the pool of celebrities I have facially coded over the years.)

Tennis Grand Slam Emo Comparison (resize)

Because the Wimbledon tournament has begun, and Williams is on the cover of Vanity Fair profoundly pregnant, instead of on Wimbledon’s grass courts, let start with this year’s two resurgent great male players: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Just as Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 grand slam event titles, so do Federer and Nadal sit atop the men’s rankings as the greatest male grand slam event titleholders with 18 and 15 victories apiece.

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Federer shows the highest amount of anger of any of the 12 players in my chart, just ahead of Billie Jean King. Score a nod to Evert’s belief that anger is the key to success in tennis, but then add an asterisk that I would like to believe Evert herself would endorse. And it’s this: over-indulge in anger and you endanger success. Given Federer’s graciousness on court these days, many tennis fans might be shocked to learn that early in his career Federer was by his own admission a “hothead.” Racquets got hurled or broken, and the Swiss maestro would argue with his dad (though not with umpires or opponents). In a 2009 match against Novak Djokovic in Miami, Federer mangled a racquet while losing. But in general, after his mentor and coach Peter Carter died during a safari in South Africa in 2002, Federer has been able to honor Carter’s advice to stop wasting energy on court with temper tantrums. “I just tried to find ways to calm myself down on the court,” Federer has said of his transformation to becoming the epitome of sportsmanship on and off the court.

Yes, anger matters in terms of fighting spirit and equilibrium alike. But as my chart illustrates, don’t overlook disgust. Federer’s arch rival Rafa Nadal isn’t just the King of Clay. Nadal is also the most given to disgust of any of the players here that score high on disgust—a pattern that distinguishes the very best grand-slam winners covered here. Look at how Nadal’s upper lip curls in disgust as he goes up into his service motion or after he prevails in a long rally. Like the way Federer’s anger is self-directed, often a reminder to himself to avoid “dumb shots,” Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused. It’s a matter of an almost neurotically ritualistic Nadal willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.

“Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused, willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.”

For Serena Williams, feelings of disgust serve a similar purpose I believe: it’s inner-directed and reflects her compulsion to win. But unlike Nadal, Williams disgust often emerges in the way she wrinkles her nose accompanying a triumphant exclamation upon hitting a winner.  As any parent knows, siblings aren’t likely to be emotionally identical; and Serena shows twice as much disgust as does her older sister Venus Williams. As to Serena Williams’ amount of anger, it’s not the volume but the intensity of the anger that the younger Williams tennis sibling shows that’s noteworthy. Case in point remains the vehement outrage Serena Williams displayed when called for a foot fault during the semi-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Williams’ obscenity-laced rebuke of the lines judge led to a further point penalization, awarding the match to Williams’ opponent in a move you’d never see from the new, more restrained version of Federer. “An apology? How many people yell at lines people? I see it happening all the time,” an unrepentant Williams declared afterwards.

Not famous for apologies himself, John McEnroe calls Williams “the greatest female tennis player, no question,” despite Steffi Graff’s 22 grand slams or Evert’s own 18 grand slams  to go with her incredible 90% match winning percentage across all surfaces and all tournaments Evert played in. But McEnroe claims Williams would rank maybe “like 700” on the men’s pro tour. What is he overlooking? I’d start by noting Williams’ indomitable will power. When it comes to a gut-check, it’s actually Williams’ disgust combined with her fear (of losing) that is most striking emotionally about her game.  Overall, my chart suggests that disgust should join anger in being a key predictor of tennis dominance. They’re both strong, visceral emotions: it’s just that in terms of mental toughness, anger and  therefore “anger management” usually attract most of the attention.