A lip curled up in contempt, eyebrows furrowed in anger and a face contorted in disgust are dangerous signs to David Matsumoto.

The three expressions form a potentially deadly triad by shedding inhibitions to violence, says the San Francisco State psychology professor and Richmond resident.

With a new $1.9 million Department of Defense grant, he'll be spending the next five years on a novel quest to reliably detect these emotions in ideological groups or individuals. Emerging technologies like face detection readers, or even astute observers, might later find a way to use the information to halt an escalation of violence, or get people out of harm's way.

It's the emotion of disgust that Matsumoto most wants to study because it can motivate a strong, undiscriminating response. Without that, anger and contempt tend to remain expressed as emotions, not action, he said.

"With disgust comes the motivation of elimination and annihilation of objects we view as contaminated or disease-carrying, like vermin," he said. "For example, when we kill cockroaches, we don't sit around and think if there are baby cockroaches and women cockroaches."

It's also an emotion common to all cultures, and it is hard-wired through evolution for its benign purpose of protecting people from potentially harmful substances, he said.

Over the eons, humanity has also learned to feel disgust for other people, what Matsumoto called "interpersonal disgust." Such a response to a child molester, for example, is fitting, he said. "Society wants to get rid of that."

But emotional programming is flexible enough, Matsumoto said, to allow for "good and bad purposes" for these hard-wired responses.

When incited for political or personal purposes, such as calling someone "an infidel dog" in a culture where being an infidel is "morally reprehensible," Matsumoto said it may be deliberately aimed at stoking violence.

"What they're doing is evoking the emotion of disgust toward that object in their members, and it's easier to annihilate those outgroups," he said.

Defense of academia

Matsumoto's five-year grant is part of a new infusion of Pentagon funds into academia, dubbed the Minerva Initiative, to promote "soft science" research for countering 21st century security threats, such as violent international extremist networks, ethnic strife, failing states and cyberthreats. It comes with a five-year renewal, dependent on budgets and research progress.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former university president, last April announced the initiative and the Pentagon's goal of expanding its social sciences repertoire. His push into academia, however, has also revived a long and, at times, controversial relationship between the defense agency and the academic community over furthering national security goals.

The military and academic institutions worked closely in 1940 developing the atomic bomb, for example. Then, the 1958 Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite spurred a fresh round of funding with the National Defense Education Act, Gates said, which sought to build up the nation's intellectual capital to compete in space and effectively challenge the nation's then-nemesis, the Soviet Union.

New tactics, however, are needed to face highly complex modern security threats, Gates told an audience of university officials during the April announcement.

"We as a nation must devote more resources to what has been called 'soft power,' the elements of national power beyond the guns and steel of the military — from diplomacy to economic development and assistance, institution-building, strategic communications and more," Gates said.

Funding "untapped resources" such as universities is "one of the keys in this effort," he continued.

Money and misgivings

The Defense Department's expenditures on basic research expanded this fiscal year to $1.7 billion, Gates said — a $273 million increase from 2008. And he has directed an additional $1 billion increase over five years for "fundamental, peer-reviewed research." Gates said the work will be unclassified and intended for publication in publicly available journals.

But a number of researchers object to the Pentagon's presence in academia, or express misgivings. They're alarmed that the hundreds of millions the Pentagon plans to award university researchers in the coming years will compromise academic freedom and shrink academia's role in furthering humanistic endeavors.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island, wrote a column about the Minerva Initiative called "Selling ourselves?" for the October issue of "Anthropology Today." In it, she detailed her concerns about a well-funded agency tasked with waging war teaming up with academics, and how that relationship would steer research toward militaristic purposes. That, in turn, would divert work from less generously funded areas such as food and economic security, refugee issues, racism and sexism.

In an interview, Lutz said she's skeptical that the Pentagon will focus on conflict resolution over war tactics.

"They're not the Department of State, they're not engaged in diplomacy," she said. "(The DOD) likes to present themselves as experts in the prevention of violence, but their expertise is in the use of violence."

Matsumoto said he respects Lutz's opinion and welcomes discussion on the subject.

"I think it's great we can have this debate. But I frankly disagree. In my experience, there are a lot more people (within the DOD) concerned with how to prevent war, rather than start war," he said. "I, as a citizen and an academic, certainly have an interest in contributing to that cause."

Experts in expression

Matsumoto won against fierce competition for the grant. More than 200 proposals were submitted, many from "top-tier universities," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a Pentagon spokesman.

To begin their study, Matsumoto and his research team this spring will start analyzing video and transcripts from figures such as Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Ted Kaczynski, among many others.

They expect to find a record replete with expressions of anger and contempt; but it's the first signal of disgust that will most capture their attention.

They'll spot it by its hallmark expression, which is universally expressed among humans, regardless of culture. It includes a wrinkling of the nose, as though objecting to a foul smell, and turned-down lower lip, raised upper lip and open mouth. The last is a signal of retching or worse.

It's one of a few facial expressions that Charles Darwin, the 19th century naturalist, believed were passed down through evolution, since nonhuman primates also bear the same expressions. Subsequent research backed his assertions. Those expressions are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, joy, sadness and surprise. The universality of the expressions helps create more harmonious interactions, so humans can more readily understand the emotional state of another, researchers note.

Facing the future

Later in his research, Matsumoto said, they'll recruit 500 to 1,000 paid participants, selected from "ideologically motivated groups," such as those that are politically active or religious. He also hopes to recruit gang members "if we can get them into the lab." The participants will watch videos, view photos or contemplate thoughts, among other activities, that give rise to hostile reactions and disgust.

He is confident he'll find consistent ways to detect emotions of anger, contempt and, most importantly, disgust. And with that information, at some later stage, defense personnel, diplomats and others can use it to understand what evokes those feelings, and perhaps alter their own behavior or diplomatic approaches to reduce those emotions, Matsumoto said.

"That's the big hope for me, and the people funding it," he said. "If we know what we're doing to others, we can change that so we don't escalate violence."

Reach Suzanne Bohan at 510-262-2789 or sbohan@bayareanewsgroup.com.

THE COMMON FACE
The face, with its more than 40 muscles, can convey thousands of expressions. But a few of them -- anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, joy, sadness and surprise -- are universal among all cultures. A San Francisco researcher is studying three under a Pentagon grant, with the goal of providing data that one day will help stop violence before it escalates.
  • Anger, demonstrated by raised nostrils, compressed mouth, furrowed brows and widened eyes. It functions to signal a readiness to attack, and it focuses the eyes.
  • Contempt, conveyed by a one-sided smile. It signals a sense of smugness and arrogance.
  • Disgust, expressed by a wrinkled nose, turned-down lower lip, raised upper lip and open mouth. The wrinkled nose indicates revulsion, as with a bad smell, and the open mouth a feeling of retching. Over the eons, it has come to be used in any situation considered revolting.
    Source: David Matsumoto
    and Paul Ekman, 2008