November 02, 2006

The cabinet of Dr. Birdwhistell

As promised, the story of "Political correctness, biology and culture" continues.

In the fictional 1880s, Sherlock Holmes closed the case of Silver Blaze by paying attention to the curious incident of the dog that did nothing in the night time. In the middle 1960s, Paul Ekman opened his study of the universality of facial expressions by paying attention to the curious incident of the file cabinet that didn't exist in an anthropologist's office.

Ekman came at the problem of facial expressions with a strange combination of Freudian and Skinnerian motivations:

As a freshly trained clinical psychologist, my therapeutic orientation was psychoanalytic, but as a researcher I had been trained as a behaviorist, a radical Skinnerian. Skinner said that psychology should examine only observable behavior; there were to be no inferences about what might be going on inside the heard. ...

I was dissatisfied with the evidence for the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy, which rested on what the patient and a therapist said. I wanted to example not words but real behavior (from a Skinnerian viewpoint) -- body movements and facial expressions. Examining the non-verbal behaviors of patient and therapist might reveal evidence of clinical improvement not shown in their words, and perhaps would suggest ways to improve therapeutic techniques.

Body movements and facial expressions are certainly real enough, but it seems odd to view them as "real behavior" in a sense that spoken words are not. In any case, Ekman spent "a few years studying hand and leg movements", and then moved on to the face.

I had not read Expression, but had heard about it and thought Darwin was probably wrong. As a Skinnerian, I thougth it unlikely that expressions would be universal, and I was sure that inheritance could not play a role in emotional behavior. But it didn't really matter what I thought, as a Skinnerian, it was better not to have any forethought about what you were going to study. I would just get the facts.

As it turned out, Ekman's empirical methodology would come into conflict with his empiricist ideology. The first clue that there might be a problem was the curious incident of the missing data in Ray Birdwhistell's office:

Before starting my research on the face, I vistied Birdwhistell. I expected to find file cabinets full of data, notebooks crammed with detailed observations, or racks of film documenting his position. Birdwhistell was surprised at my request to see his documentation, for what he had seen and observed was all in his head. We did not get along. He could not undersand what I thought I might be able to prove by re-opening the question of whether facial expressions are universal, when he had found the answer was 'no'. He could not comprehend why I was dissatisfied with his conclusions with no documentation or data others could inspect or attempt to repeat.

Ekman also talked with Gregory Bateson, who was charming, and Margaret Mead, who was not.

I clearly remember that meeting, the appearance of her office, and her unfriendly, gruff manner. She had little patience for the quest I was about to begin. She knew that I had been to see Birdwhistell and that I disagreed with Birdwhistell's view that the question of universality was settled. I did not anticipate how angrily she would react later when my findings challenged Birdwhistell's claims.

Some of the animosity may have come from the fact that Birdwhistell was Mead's student. But much of it was a clash of cultures:

They believed in the value of the lone anthropologist and his or her fieldwork, trusting in his or her own intuitions and judgments. The idea of using multiple observers, of gathering quantitative data, of building in safeguards against the influence of the scientist's commitments, which are standard in experimental psychology, were foreign to them.

Next: people in 21 countries agree about pictures of facial expressions; Birdwhistell argues they've learned about facial expressions from John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin; Ekman studies the Fore people in in the highlands of Papua New Guinea to escape the influence of Hollywood; Margaret Mead writes in the Journal of Communication that Ekman's work "is a continuing example of the appalling state of the human sciences".

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 2, 2006 12:06 AM