Q&A: Matthew Hertenstein, psychology professor, on the science of people prediction

In his new book, The Tell, Hertenstein explains how careful observation and silent clues can help us predict everything from a company's profits to a person's marital success.

Two photos sit side by side on a yearbook page. In one, a teen looks straight into the camera, big grin, eyes twinkling. The second photo shows a less cheerful student. He’s not just unsmiling, but downright grim. So: Who is more likely to announce his divorce at the 20-year class reunion?

In this case, the obvious answer is also the correct one: teens with authentic, warm smiles in their yearbook photos are more likely to be happily married later in life. Those with somber or stoic expressions are more likely to divorce.

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Matthew Hertenstein, an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University, is a leading expert in the field of nonverbal communication and the man behind that yearbook photo research. In his new book, The Tell: The Little Clues That Reveal Big Truths about Who We Are, he explains how silent clues can help us predict everything from election results to IQ scores, company profits — and yes, even marital success.

Hertenstein talked to us about this science of "people prediction" and about communicating through touch.

Your research on yearbook photos as a divorce predictor made headlines in 2009, and it’s also included in The Tell. Is that research what originally drew you to the study of “people prediction”?

That research was a catalyst to write the book because people really seemed to be interested in it. It was my first study that focused specifically on prediction, but I’d been studying nonverbal communication and emotion for over a decade.

Were you a yearbook smiler yourself?

I’d say for most of the photos, I had a moderately intense smile, but thankfully I married somebody who had a nice bright smile.

What were you hoping to accomplish with The Tell?

The overarching theme of the book is talking about the prediction of people based on nonverbal cues of some sort. I tried to synthesize the literature to show that we have this capacity — that our brains are not all biased and full of folly, as a lot of books out there have said lately. I do think our brains are prone to bias in some cases, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. The research shows that often we are pretty capable of making accurate predictions, whether it’s how aggressive someone’s likely to be or their intelligence or how outgoing they are. We’re naturally pretty good at these sorts of things. I think we need to give ourselves a little bit more credit sometimes in trusting our hunches. In the book, I use all these studies — some better-known than others — to illustrate that point.

I was also trying to show that there is a science of people prediction, specifically by looking at nonverbal cues. For scientists, it’s a big question in any area: Can you predict people’s behavior? For me, it’s an unequivocal yes.

I’d guess that this ability to predict another person’s behavior or intentions without words probably has very deep roots, but what keeps it a relevant ability today?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re pretty good at predicting how people would behave based on these subtle cues we see in life because it was really important for our survival in the evolutionary savanna, so to speak. A lot of what I talk about in the book has roots in our evolutionary heritage, but we still spend a lifetime trying to figure out what predicts people’s behavior because we want to be able to adapt to our surroundings. It’s helpful for us to know how people will behave in the future.

Let’s get into some examples from the book. Can you talk about the findings you cite on CEO photos and company profitability?

Amongst male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, the power they’re perceived to have on their faces in a photo — not necessarily how attractive they are — predicts the profits of their Fortune 500 companies. That study’s really important because it’s predicting an objective criterion rather than a subjective one.

On the other end of the spectrum, what about the research on babies’ personalities you mention?

In these studies, which took place originally at Harvard, a researcher and his colleagues tested babies in a 40- to 45-minute procedure. They’d shake mobiles in front of that babies’ faces and make loud noises and let them smell bad-smelling chemicals. They found that the minority of these infants reacted in an emotional, upset way. When the researchers then followed these kids through their childhoods and even into young adulthood, they discovered that kids who got upset during the procedure were significantly more likely to become shy, reticent kids — and there’s even some evidence that they also had higher incidences of anxiety later in life.

You also mention that many “tells” we associate with deception — fidgeting, looking away, foot tapping — are wrong. So how can we tell if someone’s lying to us?

One of the major ones is micro-expressions, which flash across the face for about 1/20th of a second or less when a person lies. If a person’s lying and they show a fear face, for example, then that’s a time when you might want to ask more questions and dig a little deeper.

There’s also something called reliable muscles, which can tell you if someone’s lying, even with something as simple as a joke. If I tell you a joke, it’s easy for you to contract your lip corners up. But if I really wanted to know whether you thought my joke was funny, I would look around your eyes. There’s a muscle there that contracts, and when a person is experiencing a genuine positive emotion, they’ll typically contract that muscle. When it’s not contracted, that’s a good clue they don’t find your joke really funny and are just being polite. I also talk about lopsided expressions. When people feign facial expressions, sometimes they’ll contract one side of the face more than the other. That's another indication that someone might be lying.

How did combing through all these studies and doing a good bit of your own research change how you look at people when you’re out and about?

It definitely makes me a more sophisticated observer of interactions. It’s kind of like being a wine connoisseur. If you know a lot about wine and you drink it a lot, you can taste things and appreciate things and perceive things that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise. I have been studying this for over a decade. It makes me not only think about interactions I have with other people, but also about society at-large, and how other people’s appearances drive our perceptions of them. Though I do think we have to be careful in our daily lives to not be overconfident in our predictions.

You’re also known for your research on communicating through touch. Can you share some of your recent findings?

Touch was always seen as a restricted communication system. Some of our work [at the DePauw Touch and Emotion Lab] has shown that touch is actually a very sophisticated signaling system to communicate emotion. It turns out that people are able to communicate a host of emotions accurately to other people using touch. Emotions like anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, love, gratitude and even sympathy have been shown to be communicated via touch accurately and with little confusion over interpretation.

What are you working on next?

I’m starting to put together another book. It’s still in the early stages, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s going to be a parenting book on how people can raise their children in an emotionally sound manner, so to speak. In the lab, I’m continuing with touch work, looking at emotional communication and touch. I’m also doing some more prediction studies looking at what you can predict in the business world based on leaders’ appearances.

What got you interested in all this in the first place — this study of nonverbal communication?

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that people can control their words pretty well, but there’s years of research that shows they have a much more difficult time turning off their nonverbal cues when they talk and interact. I think that’s part of what turned me on to the study of nonverbal communication and emotion. If you really want to understand people, you have to go beyond the words and look at what’s happening when they say the words.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com