Faking Grief: When an Expression Reveals the Truth

My son–now a professor, an educator of today’s youth, a scientist in search of truth–was, in his salad days, a world-class faker.

He particularly perfected his art when it came to faking illness in order to get out of school. Our growing skepticism spurred him to new heights of creativity, and his theatrics were something to behold. Doubled over, clutching his stomach; hobbling about, wincing in obvious distress; rolling about on the bed and moaning, he put on a show that was nothing if not engrossing. I should have charged admission.

He sold himself out, though, in his very consistency. Every Tuesday and Thursday–remarkably, the very same days on which he was to attend Hebrew school–he had piercing headaches, so bad, he said, that they debilitated him, requiring bed and a darkened room–until the time for bar mitzvah prep had passed, and the time for ball-playing with a friend had begun. My husband finally termed them “The Two-Tablet Headaches,” enjoying his own pun–as he always does, immensely–on the Tylenol treatment and God’s revelation.

For here’s the thing about faking–as convincing as the phony is to others, and possibly even to himself, there comes a time in most fakers’ lives when people can tell they’re faking–and at that point the gig is often up. But it’s hard to prove that the performance is a con.

We eventually knew my son no more had a headache on a given Thursday than he had morning sickness, but even as I forced him onto the school bus and marched him into his Hebrew lessons, I couldn’t prove in a court of law that his head didn’t cause him so much pain he was dizzy. I just had the wisdom of experience on my side. For, really, how can you prove someone’s lying about what they claim?

Along come Leanne ten Brinke, Stephen Porter and Alysha Baker, and, in their article, “Darwin the detective: Observable facial muscle contractions reveal emotional high-stakes lies,” provide enough scientific fact–with sufficient high-falutin’ terminology thrown in (the corrugator supercilii will figure prominently)–to come close to proving when certain people, acting for their lives, are lying.

Blame it on the muscles in your upper face. They’ll sell you down the river any day. Ten Brinke, psychology Ph.D. candidate, her supervisor Porter, who is the Founding Director of Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science & Law, and Baker, who works in Porter’s lab, analyzed the importance of four facial muscles that, if properly scrutinized, tell the difference between genuine and faked emotion.

The subjects were 52 people who had been videotaped pleading to the public for the safe return of missing loved ones. A staggering one-half of these people would turn out to have been responsible for the disappearances themselves.

So researchers hired expert facial analysts, blind to both the experiment’s purpose, and to the pleading relatives’ guilt or innocence. The analysts then located the single moment when the relatives were making a direct appeal to the public.

Now things get pretty anatomically complex here, so just bear with me, but we’ve reached the moment where the facial expression reveals a truth beyond that being spoken. Those who were sincerely pleading for their loved ones’ return had significantly more contraction of two facial muscles related to grief.

First is the currugator supercili, one of three muscles controlling the eyelids, the one that pulls the eyebrow downward and thus (to much dismay) is responsible for wrinkles in the forehead. Sources as wide-ranging as Gray’s 1918 Anatomy of the Human Body and Yohei Tanaka’s 2011 article with the compelling title “Long-lasting Relaxation of Corrugator Supercilii Muscle Contraction Induced by Near Infrared Irradiation” (for real; I couldn’t make it up) assert that the corrugator “may be regarded as the principal muscle in the expression of suffering” (Gray, 1918).

The second muscle with more contraction on the part of the authentic relatives is the depressor anguli oris, a muscle of the mouth that plays a role in, well, depressing the corner of the mouth, causing frowning.

While the phony pleaders were busy not sufficiently contracting the currugator and the frowning muscle, their faces were active elsewhere, working hard to try to portray a grief they didn’t feel. Quite oddly, these fakers slightly contracted their zygomatic major, which is the muscle of the human face linked with–of all things–raising the corners of the mouth when a person smiles.

And full-steam ahead on the phoneys’ faces was the frontalis muscle, in full contraction. This muscle raises the eyebrows, and is primarily responsible for expressions of surprise. It’s not really what the pleader wants to express–but it’s much easier to raise the eyebrows than to engage the currugator muscle.

In a separate but connected article, “Cry me a river: Identifying the behavioural consequences of extremely high-stakes interpersonal deception,” ten Brinke and Porter explain the faker’s facial substitutions:

The presence of upper face surprise in deceptive pleas is likely the result of failed attempts to portray sadness; liars can easily raise their eyebrows (i.e., contract their frontalis muscle, the primary muscle involved in the expression of surprise), but it is considerably more difficult to raise only the inner (and not the outer) frontalis, as is required for the simulation of grief in the forehead. Further, Darwin (1872) noted that the corrugator muscles, which pull the eyebrows together to create vertical wrinkles between the eyebrows and often are involved in the distress expression, are difficult to engage voluntarily (and in the absence of genuine emotion).

Thus, says ten Brinke, it is the muscles of our upper face that reveal the truth, despite all efforts to hide it, precisely because they are the muscles least subject to voluntary control.

Back to that moment, frozen in time, when the relative is directly appealing for help: facial analysts’ assessments of those four muscles’ interactions enabled them to guess the person’s authenticity correctly 69% of the time, which, although far from perfect, is pretty darned impressive.

The remaining 31% who convinced even the experts, are, I guess, world-class fakers. Perhaps they took lessons from my son.


  • ten Brinke L, Porter S. Cry me a river: Identifying the behavioural consequences of extremely high-stakes interpersonal deception. Law and Human Behavior (in press)
  • ten Brinke L, et al. Darwin the detective: Observable facial muscle contractions reveal emotional high-stakes lies. Evolution and Human Behavior (in press).
  • A story from the Canadian cbc news about Michael White, who pleaded so convincingly for his wife’s return that even his mother-in-law pitied him. He had murdered his wife days before the televised interview. See “Police say body found near Edmonton is Liana White” at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2005/07/19/lianawhite070519.html.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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