The United States has been gripped again by presidential election fever, and millions of Americans are earnestly trying to determine which candidate has the sincere interests of the nation at heart. But this question of “sincerity” is tricky. A lot of people voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004 because he somehow seemed sincere.

But how did they know it wasn’t all just an act? How can you ever know whether a politician is sincere? Maybe a more general question is this: Do humans actually have a mechanism that can distinguish between true sincerity and the very artful fakery of it?

It wouldn’t be that difficult to scientifically determine the answer, but as far as I can tell, nobody has run the experiment. Here’s how one might go about it: Film a discussion between two people who are interacting in complete sincerity. It could be a boyfriend and girlfriend who’ve been asked to discuss their relationship, or a debate between two sports fans about who has the better team.

Then hire two good professional actors to replicate this scene. The actors’ goal is to convince you that they too are utterly sincere. And yet, of course they are not. The particular emotions, values, points of view that were deeply held and sincerely expressed by the original participants are utterly irrelevant to the actors. Emotionally they are invested only in creating a convincing external performance.

Now show films, under controlled conditions, of these two scenarios. Allow the observers to vote on which version is truly sincere and which is the artful fake. Let’s say that the outcome is that observers cannot tell the difference (or worse – that they are systematically more likely to believe the fake version to be real).

What significance might this have for politics? A key premise of Presidential politics in the U.S., as it is practiced today, is that you are voting for the individual. People do not primarily vote the resumé but rather the candidate, out of a sense that they have identified the person they can trust to lead the country.

Should the experiment show that true sincerity cannot be determined by a politician’s manner, arguably this would constitute proof that someone who runs on a platform of sincerity, such as George W. Bush, could just as easily be a completely cynical liar, a cold and calculating manipulator of his audience, up to some utterly self-serving end. Not only wouldn’t we know the difference, we couldn’t know the difference.

Maybe we should run the experiment and see.

8 thoughts on “Sincerely”

  1. Ah yes, the Ekman studies. When I see a great performance in a film, one of the things that strikes me is the subtlety of the muscle movements in the face of the actor. There is a moment in “From Here to Eternity” from 1953 – which I watched again three days ago – in which Montgomery Clift’s character is completely overwhelmed with grief by the loss of a dear friend. At one point his face is completely impassive except for a very slight muscle twitch, lasting for a fraction of a second, just below his right eye, and that tiny movement betrays the enormous flood of emotion his character is holding back through sheer force of will. It’s an intense and powerful scene. I was profoundly moved, but simultaneously I found myself wondering whether Clift was consciously controlling that one muscle, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that he was. I know that Paul Ekman can do that – I’ve seen him do it in person. I understand that he practiced for years until now he can individually control each separate muscle in his face.

    In sad contrast, last night I watched Montgomery Clift in “Suddenly Last Summer”, the Tennessee Williams play that was turned into a film in 1959 (great screenplay by Gore Vidal by the way). This was just three years after Clift’s auto accident in which his face had been all smashed up and had to be patched back together. He looked almost exactly the same as he had before the accident, but you could tell he no longer had that fine control over his facial muscles. He was trying to do everything with voice and eye movement and body language, but he had lost his most powerful instrument. It really brings home the power of the facial muscles to convey emotion, but it also suggests that maybe an actor can indeed fake sincerity – that facial expression might be an instrument which can consciously be played like a kind of affective Stradivarius, if you’re good enough.

  2. I thought the point of the studies was that the micro facial muscle movements betray conscious intent. Thus, a liar can’t lie all the way because those micro movements reflect the real intent.

  3. meaning of course that clift might have been trying to portray the action accordingly, but if Ekman had gotten ahold of that footage, he might have been thinking about something totally different.

    i think the kind of micro movements that ekman talks about aren’t really visible to us on a conscious level–also. we see them only when film is slowed down or something. they register with us subconsciously, but i didn’t think we could “see” them…

  4. Since when people vote for a “candidate that has the sincere interests of the nation at heart” ? That is sort of people should do. But in practice, almost every single person vote for his/her best interest, and do not care if it destroys a country …. (people are stupid but I have witnessed that during our last elections, even coming from my supposedly smart friends. It actually made me very sad). Oh well…

  5. Oups, many words missing in my comment… “do” in the first sentence, “what” in the second one, “s” in the third one, and so on…lol sorry

  6. Your though experiment has a flaw, in that the test subjects are shown a scene of human interaction mediated by film or video. It’s not hard to imagine that humans have an ability to sense sincerity in people in their presence, and that that ability fails to work on representations of people.

    From an evolutionary standpoint, an ability to sniff BS is very valuable in a social species such as humans. However, realistic moving images are simply too new to have had any impact on any evolutionarily conditioned abilities.

    To refer to your original idea of politicians, it’s interesting to note how little contact todays politicians have with their constituents, let alone the public at large. And increasingly, politicians contact with media is obsessively micromanaged. Its nothing short of miraculous that its works, however haltingly, at all! Its a tribute to the robust, fault-tolerant system enshrined in our Constitution. My wish is that people think less about the sincerity or self-interest of politicians and more about protecting that system from politicians who want to monkey with it.

  7. Reminds me of the chapter from Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat where the patients from the aphasia ward-people who could not understand speech but could understand body language and intonation- roared with laughter at President Reagan’s speech on TV (I looked it up: Chapter 9, P79-81).

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