Faces in the crowd: how crowdsourcing can help people fit into society

November 30th, 2011 by

microtask_faces_crowdSometimes it seems there’s a lot of negativity towards the crowd. Whether it’s images of angry mobs with burning torches or hurtful terms like “mob mentality” and “tyranny of the majority”, our society often seems to favor the individual over the group.

We in the crowdsourcing industry have been working hard to dispel these myths and improve the image of the mob. Research underway at Cambridge University is doing just that, by using the crowd to help individuals who have more trouble than most fitting into society: people with autistic spectrum disorders.

Just put on a happy face
In the experiment participants are shown a number of short video snippets of people listening, talking or responding to some trigger. Their speech is garbled, so that what you hear is not what is said, but how it’s said (an important distinction, as anyone who has ever entered into a romantic relationship knows). They’re then asked to describe the emotional state of the subject with just one word.

What researchers have found is that we are remarkably good at reading people’s moods by their faces, voices and posture. So much so in fact, that we can now effectively say that for the far majority of people, X facial expression equals Y emotion (confirming what fans of Eric Conveys an Emotion have known for years.)

You read my mind
So what does this mean for autism sufferers? Quite a lot actually. Growing up, most of us learn to “read” facial expressions naturally. We just know that when a parent pulls that face, it means we’re in trouble. But to an autistic person, suffering from so called “mind blindness”, it’s not so simple. Researchers hope now it might be possible to teach autistic people facial expressions. In fact, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, has already produced The Mind Reading DVD, a comprehensive guide to reading facial expressions.

Of course we should celebrate our differences. But these developments – based on results obtained and verified by crowdsourcing – show that equally we should celebrate our similarities. After all, it’s these shared understandings that make human empathy so miraculously efficient. Even though we may be part of the crowd, we’re all still individuals.