Fake tears or real sadness?

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018 by Cliff.

In a recent Discovery Channel documentary series, the team analysed the behaviour of some of the worlds most widely known criminals (all of which pleaded their innocence). 

While conducting their analysis they picked up on a fascinating behavioural tell that was consistent across six of the subjects who were lying about their involvement. Cliff Lansley, one of the documentaries analysts explores this behaviour here…

I have just been asked to consult on 20 criminal cases on the Discovery Channel in the third series of “Faking it – Tears of a Crime” and the exhibits of fake sadness gave away many of the suspects in their police interviews and press appeals. What struck me was the obvious tells were in the eyebrows.

There are 43 muscles in the face, and they can combine to produce around 10000 facial expressions. Unless you are one of our FACS (Facial Action Coding System) trained coders it can be quite daunting to watch all those muscle movements in addition to body language, psychophysiological changes, as well as listening to changes in the voice, verbal style and verbal content. So I thought I would share a few photos to highlight the key give-away when someone is pretending to be sad.

If you ask an adult or a child to show you sadness on the face, we often get this…

The eyebrows are pulled down… and the mouth is arched. The eyebrows are a big problem though the arch is a good theory. The problem here is that the little girl is creating that arch with an upward thrust of the chin boss. True sad mouth arches are created by the lip corners pulling the outer corners of the lips down, with very little action on the chin boss. I call this expression a ‘sulk’ – a conscious display to others, often in order to secure attention or one’s own way. Nobody sulks in an empty room ;).

For this blog I will focus on the eyebrows.

Our colleague, Dr Paul Ekman, has researched the face for 50 years and even spent time in Papua New Guinea studying the remote Fore tribe to see if they too displayed emotions in the same way we do in the west. They do.

Here is a photo of a tribesman who had been triggered into a sad state by the scenario that ‘a child has died’.

This was the result…

The red arrows show what brows actually do in genuine sadness – the inner brows (only) move upwards, not downwards as in the previous fake sadness or sulk.

Now for a photo of Paul Ekman’s daughter, Eve Ekman, for you to analyse…

Untrained people often judge this expression to be a neutral face. The brows are not pointing upwards as in the Fore tribe example. Do you agree?

The key to reading any face is that we must always establish a baseline – what does a neutral face look like.

Here the image is again on the right, with Eve’s neutral face on the left.

In this expression, the brows on the left photo are angled downwards with the forehead muscles relaxed. On the right-hand image, however, we see the brows have flattened out. This tells us that the inner frontalis (forehead muscle) is active and is pulling the brows upwards. This is very hard to do voluntarily. It is what we call a ‘reliable’ muscle. When activated, it is a reliable indicator of genuine sadness as only one in ten can move this muscle voluntarily.

So the one in ten of us that can do this can lie and fake sadness? Well, not always. There are 4 other features to genuine sadness on the face. For one, you will notice the brows on the right are symmetrical.

When Ian Huntley commented on two girls being missing from a local school in the UK, he to fake concern and sadness in a press interview thinking that he had an edge – he was a ‘one in ten’ and he raised his inner brows. Here he is…

You will notice his inner brows are raised, but his right inner brow is around 5mm higher than his left inner brow. Unless he has a bad botox job, nerve damage, badly shaved brows, or an injury we can be pretty sure this is a posed expression.

This gave Ian Huntley away who had in fact murdered the girls he was talking about.

In 20 cases this leakage of fake sadness gave away 6 of the 20 suspects. It isn’t a Pinocchio’s nose… it isn’t a single indicator of deception you can rely on with everyone… but it is worth paying attention to if you are interested in getting to the truth.

Cliff Lansley
Article by Cliff Lansley

Expert in emotional intelligence, behavioural analysis and high stake deception detection contexts. Cliff holds; B Ed (Hons), MIOD, MABPsych, Cert Ed.

2 responses to “Fake tears or real sadness?”

  1. Any comment on Kate and Gerry Mccann, or have you been “Carter-Ruck” Ed???

    • Cliff says:

      Hi Colin. Now that’s an interesting case that has divided the nation (and beyond). I am sorry to say that we have a policy to input only into the judicial system when a case is live/open. The investigation (Operation Grange) is still active… but watch this space!

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