Spoiler alert: Spy techniques dissect GOP presidential nominees

The same techniques that help spot a would-be terrorist in an airport can identify the realistic nominees for presidential candidates.

After the Republicans’ presidential debate June 13, facial analysis expert Dan Hill broke down the contenders’ performances using the same methods that CIA and FBI agents apply in surveillance operations and interrogations, writes Fast Company’s Kevin Randall. If you check out the conclusions drawn by Hill and Gallup pollsters, you’d wonder if they were watching the same debate in New Hampshire.

According to Gallup, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appeared to hold on to his front-runner status. Among the well-known GOP contenders — Rick Santorum and Herman Cain don’t crack the 50 percent mark for name recognition — Romney has the strongest ratings for positivity, writes Frank Newport in an article on Gallup’s website. Newport adds that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann looks like a potentially worthy opponent as she nearly matches Romney’s Positive Intensity Score and is rising in recognition. However, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty seems stuck in neutral with merely average name recognition and relatively little positive reactions among people that Gallup polled, Newport writes.

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But Hill’s analysis paints a different picture of the debate’s outcome.

Based on his analysis of the nonverbal, facial reactions of GOP candidates during the debate, Hill told Randall that Romney registered little impact, while Bachmann’s emotions could undermine her candidacy. Hill’s methods reveal that Romney was generally appealing, but he just didn’t excite anyone.

On the other hand, Pawlenty did well on intensity even though he preached a generally angry and negative message and exhibited plenty of frustration. Bachmann also showed a significant amount of frustration about the country’s direction — plenty of American voters can commiserate because of the slowly recovering economy.

However, Hill pointed out to Randall that Bachmann’s facial expressions betrayed an unhealthy amount of fear and anxiety. Randall writes that Pawlenty’s fiery anger about the country’s struggles would trump Bachmann’s fear in attracting voter support.

Hill’s techniques aren’t relegated to speculative punditry, as facial analysis tools and techniques are common at the CIA, FBI and Transportation Security Administration, among other government agencies. TSA trains its behavior detection officers through the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques Program, which teaches TSA agents to recognize travelers exhibiting suspicious levels of anxiety, according to the agency’s website.

On “The TSA Blog,” Blogger Bob writes that another facial analysis expert, Paul Ekman, helped design the training program.

As Blogger Bob describes it: “Behavior analysis is based on the fear of being discovered. People who are trying to get away with something display signs of stress through involuntary physical and physiological behaviors.” According to the blog post, TSA arrested more than 500 people in about seven months using behavioral analysis surveillance at airports. Many of those arrests involved weapons, fraudulent documents, drug possession or outstanding warrants.

Blogger Bob also writes about a somewhat revealing — and disturbing — training exercise in Cincinnati. “Two of my fellow [behavior detection officers] spotted behaviors on a passenger and conducted secondary screening. They were unaware at the time the individual was an undercover ‘passenger’ involved in covert testing.… It was revealed that the passenger also had plastic explosive simulants in the cups of her bra.”

Explosive bras? It’s no wonder TSA agents are facing fondling accusations when training programs put the fear of a bomb-wielding bombshell in them.

Ekman has caught the eye of more power players than just TSA with his ability to diagnose emotions through facial analysis. His work impressed the Dalai Lama so much that His Holiness donated $50,000 so that Ekman could apply his studies to programs that would help teachers better understand and connect with students, writes Judy Foreman in a 2003 New York Times interview with Ekman.

In that interview, Ekman told Foreman that facial muscles function to express seven basic human emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. He added that those emotions transcend cultural barriers. So media-soaked GOP candidates and secluded natives of Papua New Guinea display similar muscle movements when afraid or anxious, whether the inspiration for those emotions is an uncomfortable conversation about the United States’ economic future or the chase for a wild boar that would help feed a village.

Of course, correctly translating facial expressions into human emotions is not exactly easy. Meredith Levinson writes in CIO magazine about the difficulty that government leaders face when trying to determine whether colleagues are resistant to a new project or just bothered by personal issues.

Levinson’s feature includes a facial analysis test based on Ekman’s studies. Are you CIA or TSA agent material? Take a crack at it — you’ll probably flash some facial expressions of happiness, frustration or anger as you try to read the faces. The Guardian offers a similar challenge with explanations in the answer key. 

About the Author

Michael Protos is a web content editor with 1105 Government Information Group.


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