Every team wants the perfect draft pick. It's a deceptively simple-sounding goal that haunts every executive in sports, because they are being asked to do the nearly impossible—predict what human beings will do. Sure, every few years a player like Andrew Luck or Bryce Harper comes along who simply can't fail (even if they sometimes do), but the rest of drafting is closer to throwing darts blindfolded than anyone would like to admit. And that very much includes high-level sports executives, who don't keep their jobs by shrugging and telling their billionaire bosses, "Hey man, we're all just trying to get lucky!"
Instead, they all search for the edge: that one statistic, one test, or one personal detail that will reveal the hidden future—or make the executive seem downright insane. This is how you end up with Jeff Ireland asking Dez Bryant if his mother is a prostitute, whatever the hell Sam Hinkie is doing in Philadelphia, and the Milwaukee Bucks hiring a man who specializes in "facial coding analysis."
To be more specific, the Bucks, per The New York Times, hired Sensory Logic's Dan Hill to read "the faces of college prospects and NBA players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks." Impressed, the Bucks kept Hill "to analyze their players and team chemistry throughout this season." What is he actually doing? From Sensory Logic's website, here is the scientific-ish premise (emphasis added):
Breakthroughs in brain science have confirmed what we all instinctively knew: people are primarily emotional decision-makers, who evaluate matters quickly and intuitively, and communicate their truest responses non-verbally. Loyalty? Recall? Persuasion? Those key business barometers are all emotionally-driven. Fortunately, Sensory Logic has the scientific means to gauge whether your company is on-message as well as—more importantly—on-emotion in communicating with consumers, employees and other key audiences. Facial coding was originated by Charles Darwin, refined by Dr. Paul Ekman, and brought into daily business practice by Sensory Logic.
From the sound of it, this is a sort of neo-phrenology that will, allegedly, help the brands sell you stuff. (One imagines Madison Avenue eagerly paying to be told that bored-looking focus group participants look bored, scientifically speaking.) Hill's website boasts, though, that facial coding can help in many fields, such as research, sports, the law, leadership, and consulting. It even notes endorsements from various specialists in the art of convincing you to buy books about how to sell stuff (like books). Sensory Logic is eager to explain the unique benefits their techniques can provide, and the section about sports is particularly on message.
In a "Moneyball" world, every General Manager and Head Coach is parsing the same data set. Where's the competitive advantage? It lies in finally capturing and quantifying not just the physical attributes like height, weight and speed, but also the otherwise intangible essential: the heart of a champion. Great athletes are motivated, resilient and coachable - traits rooted in a player's emotional DNA. With facial coding, it becomes possible to grasp who a player really is ... Whether in pre-draft interviews, during trial work-outs or to aid in a player's emotional development once selected for a team, facial coding can provide crucial guidance. Don't get caught drafting or trading for a player whose physical skills overshadow character issues that will derail your championship drive.
Say what you will about the pitch, but give Sensory Logic credit for using the exact right buzzwords to cut toward the dark hearts of general managers and their every fear and angst. They go on to promise that through the advanced science of looking at people's faces, the company can measure a subject's personality in terms of "openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism" and present a visual analysis of a subject's emotional life—with bar graphs.
It's at least as easy to find people willing to scoff at what Hill is selling as you'd expect. While there is some science behind the idea that you can objectively read a subject's expressions, there is not much support for the idea that you can read an inner life in them, much less divine the heart of a champion.
"It's possible there's evidence I don't know of showing the validity of what's being suggested here," Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, told New York's Christopher Shea. "If such evidence existed, I'd eat my shorts."
"There are no indications," Bella DePaulo, a project scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Shea, "that the coding guy is doing anything but picking out a few expressions and telling stories around them."
While academics roll their eyes, though, professional teams and even public institutions are listening with perked ears. Before the 2012 season, for instance, Washington State football coach Mike Leach brought in Hill to evaluate his players. He turned up in Pullman; he looked at people's faces; he rated their neuroticism and openness and so on, with decimal points; and he submitted reports which we obtained through a public records request. (The names of the subjects were redacted in the records I received as a privacy-protection measure.) The reports are ... well, maybe you should just take a look.
Let's leave aside the remarkably precise numerical values in these reports, as there are surely scientifically sound reasons why, say, this player's extraversion rating is a 9.3 rather than a 9.2 or 9.4, and why his robust smile is assessed at exactly 19%. The true discoveries here are that this subject isn't happy, and that Sensory Logic's report doesn't really explain why. Perhaps he's frustrated being used by a corrupt system that allows old men to make money from his labor while he goes unpaid; perhaps he's angry at being trapped in a room with a quack; perhaps his emotional DNA is fatally compromised. A lot of possibilities here.
The dreaded bottom feeder! Followed by the equally scary not accessible and rejection mode! This all actually sounds eerily similar to how I describe ex-boyfriends when I'm trying to pretend I'm so over them. ("That bottom feeder was so not accessible and always in rejection mode.") How does this relate to football? Who knows?
Note that while this person has a high neuroticism rating, the report says that the "neuroticism rating makes no sense based on emotional data." This raises questions. What's the point of having a neuroticism rating at all? How can a subject have a neuroticism rating that's in conflict with the emotional data from which it was derived?? What does this even mean???
Here we see that there's just no winning. This player is happy, which is good, but not good, since "happiness can make you sloppy with the details as well as show love of football." If you're sad, that's bad—but if you're happy, that's bad too. (What's next? Taking the guy to task for repeated viewing of that darling llamas on the loose video?) This guy gets aced out anyway because his face reveals that he's a skeptic; as we all know football is not a game where any kind of individualist has ever succeeded.
The bad news sentence here doesn't even end!
"Could it be a cultural barrier?" Seriously?
Only mildly conscientious! Given to disgust! At this point, it's pretty clear that facial coding—which is, after all, a product being sold to management—takes as a premise that the perfect football player is an unfeeling, unthinking automaton who always does what he is told, never asks questions, and always says, "Thank you." It's always interesting to see Science! and the needs of commerce, working together.
In addition to reports on individuals, Hill also provided an overview by position, which is more or less an incomprehensible string of nonsensical jargon.
The analysis continues, bringing us deep inside the game not just with penetrating insights on the order of "perhaps more comradery [sic] on defense," but an actual chart (measuring something or other) that purports to prove it!
He then goes on to break down the differences between offense and defense even further, introducing such concepts as triple sadness and appearing to quantify swagger as a function of contempt:
By which point the only possibilities to be drawn are a) that this is real science and that our feeble minds can't comprehend its complex scope and meaning, or b) that this looks like garbage because it is garbage.
Dr. Kenneth Craig, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, explained the basic fallacy at play here very well when speaking with Vice recently. It's not simply that looking at someone's face is no way to look into their character; it's that character isn't fixed, and is inextricable from context.
"Our moods and dispositions at any given moment in time are very much not only a manifestation of internal, stable traits, but they're also a reflection of what's happening to us at this moment in time. Where are we? Are we with friends? Are we being subjected to frightening or angering or disgusting circumstances? So you have to recognize the situational variability in expression over time."
Our emotions are fleeting and we have no way of knowing how they connect to our long-term lives. Am I happy right now because I'm a happy person, or because I got some good news? Am I sad right now because I'm a neurotic person, or because my editor told me that what I thought was brilliant prose was actually quite dull? Am I a depressed person, or having a bad day? This is just as true of athletes as anyone else—that contemptuous player with no respect for authority may simply be someone having a bad day, or just someone who has no respect for the person interviewing him—and anyway no one has any real idea how any of this actually translates to the ability to get over the goal line with seconds left on the clock. Yet through keywords, scientific promises, and fear, Hill has convinced teams to ignore all of this and buy his services, hoping to steal some edge and find some way of seeing into the future.
That's the strangest part of all—a place called Sensory Logic asking customers to set aside logic and buy its services because, hey, who knows, they might work. And they might! So might snake oil; so might goat entrails; and so might whatever the heck they do over at Sloan. And I've got some lovely waterfront property in Miami that I'd like to talk about with anyone who buys any of it.
There's a reason human history is littered with people who promised they could tell the shape of things to come. It's that we all want to believe we can get exactly what we want for the price we want to pay. Because if we can't, we have to admit that there are things beyond our control, and that in the end all we're doing is trying to get lucky.
Top image of phrenologist at work via Getty