How to tell if someone is really in pain or just faking it.

By Seriously Science | March 27, 2014 6:00 am
Photo: flickr/Sarah-Rose

Photo: flickr/Sarah-Rose

When it comes to reading people, scientific studies have revealed helpful strategies for situations ranging from playing poker and identifying gonorrhea-infected people by smell alone.  But this study might just prove even more useful. Here, researchers show that it is possible to distinguish between people who are faking pain and those who are actually experiencing it. And although people can be trained to improve their ability to tell the two apart, they have nothing on computer vision — apparently, when it comes to pain, computers are better at identifying when facial expressions are forced and when they are involuntary. Are we one step closer to a Torture Bot? Only time will tell…

Automatic Decoding of Facial Movements Reveals Deceptive Pain Expressions.

“In highly social species such as humans, faces have evolved to convey rich information for social interaction, including expressions of emotions and pain. Two motor pathways control facial movement: a subcortical extrapyramidal motor system drives spontaneous facial expressions of felt emotions, and a cortical pyramidal motor system controls voluntary facial expressions. The pyramidal system enables humans to simulate facial expressions of emotions not actually experienced. Their simulation is so successful that they can deceive most observers. However, machine vision may be able to distinguish deceptive facial signals from genuine facial signals by identifying the subtle differences between pyramidally and extrapyramidally driven movements. Here, we show that human observers could not discriminate real expressions of pain from faked expressions of pain better than chance, and after training human observers, we improved accuracy to a modest 55%. However, a computer vision system that automatically measures facial movements and performs pattern recognition on those movements attained 85% accuracy. The machine system’s superiority is attributable to its ability to differentiate the dynamics of genuine expressions from faked expressions. Thus, by revealing the dynamics of facial action through machine vision systems, our approach has the potential to elucidate behavioral fingerprints of neural control systems involved in emotional signaling.”

Related content:
NCBI ROFL: Classifying dogs’ facial expressions from photographs.
NCBI ROFL: Innocent until proven bearded.
NCBI ROFL: Botox makes you happy…because you have no other choice.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: feelings shmeelings
  • Uncle Al

    Try it in a burn ward, a terminal cancer ward, a soup line, a free clinic, a crack house.

  • Rain Water Systems

    Robot says, ” you feel no real pain. Next!”
    Maybe next we can have computerized politics.

  • Seaspirit Christie

    this is tosh like a lot of the other signals people think they know, I am in constant pain but it dosn’t show on my face,

    • Gnasha17

      It isn’t meant to identify pain. It identifies faked expressions; that’s all. Ergo: if you are faking pain and displaying it in this manner, this will identify it. I agree that it’s uses seem fairly limited however. When and why it would be used is not made clear! I hope u find some relief from ur pain.

  • Kieron Seymour-Howell

    Good luck lying to your robotic overlords in the future! … lol

  • Katy Henderson

    Sorry, but “machines” can NEVER replace the Intutiveness of Humans…What a F*CKED up world we live in…where the DEA and US GOV stands with US Military “Guarding” their POPPY in Afganistan and the US Gov and DEA and AFT SALES and MOVES more “ILLEGAL” products–DRUGS, WEAPONS and BULLSHIT than ANY OTHER in the World….Check out Bush history and bami history too…Fast n furious, a boat named “barbara” and more… they WANT us “Submissive” to their “electronic overlords” and until and unless the PEOPLE–you know, Real Human Beings STAND UP TO THEM–it will not change.

    • Gnasha17

      Actually the way the human brain works is to filter out lots of visual information. It is efficient but doesn’t alwYs see the entire picture. Try brain games. Fun and informatibe interactive programme. All on YouTube.

  • Jason L Coleman

    Wait until there’s a robot that feels pain. Then we’re buggered :)


Seriously, Science?

Seriously, Science?, formerly known as NCBI ROFL, is the brainchild of two prone-to-distraction biologists. We highlight the funniest, oddest, and just plain craziest research from the PubMed research database and beyond. Because nobody said serious science couldn't be silly!
Follow us on Twitter: @srslyscience.
Send us paper suggestions: srslyscience[at]

See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar