Emote Control

Why couldn’t we tell that the balloon boy’s parents were faking their distress?

Richard Heene

Shortly after authorities announced that 6-old-year Falcon Heene had been found safe and sound, ending speculation that he had been aboard a flying saucer that escaped from his family’s backyard, his father Richard appeared before an encampment of cameras to share a few words of relief. “He says he was hiding in the attic,” Heene said, his voice swelling on the last two syllables as he half-shrugged and looked at the ground. “And, um, because I yelled at him.” He took a sharp breath, voice faltering. “I’m really sorry I yelled at him.”

That night, CNN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell described a “very emotional news conference just moments ago, the dad clearly choking up.” The next morning, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderen told the network that “it was real obvious from [the Heenes’] demeanor early on that they thought he was in the balloon.” Later that day, he told Wolf Blitzer, “I can tell you, having got to the scene somewhat after the boy came out, I—I, too, saw the parents were visibly shaken by this event and certainly seemed very credible.” Mayumi Heene’s 9-1-1 call, released the next day, was even more convincing: This woman was obviously distraught.

Is there ever anything to be learned from the way a suspect reacts at the scene of the crime? We now know, of course, that Richard and Mayumi Heene were merely credible actors who duped the networks and the sheriff. This was a failure of what we’ll call emotional forensics: the process of determining whether someone’s reaction to a crisis is genuine. It’s not just an academic question. As TheNew Yorker’s David Grann recounted in his recent examination of Cameron Todd Willingham, the man executed in Texas for an arson he almost certainly didn’t commit, Willingham’s reaction at the scene of the fire was alternately presented as evidence for and against him. A police chaplain at the scene originally described Willingham as being so hysterical that he needed to be physically restrained. As other evidence turned against him, however, a neighbor reported that Willingham “did not appear to be excited or concerned”—a claim the chaplain would later amend his story to include.

There is little empirical study of how well people can detect a feigned emotion, but there are many studies of how well they can detect liars. Experts examine the way a person who’s fibbing contorts and shifts his face in a way that reveals hidden emotions, like delight at having duped someone. In the end, though, lie detection is about guessing whether a particular statement, or set of statements, is true. By contrast, emotional forensics would involve judging the veracity of the emotion itself based on how the subject behaves. (A fibber may look as if he’s experiencing delight at having duped someone—but is he really?)

The field of lie detection can tell us that, in many cases, a person’s inability to cloak his real emotions during a performance will tip his hand. Lying studies titan Paul Ekman describes this process as “leakage.” One classic example, cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 New Yorker profile of Ekman, comes from Soviet spy Kim Philby’s appearance at a press conference in 1955. When Ekman watched the tape of Philby’s performance, he saw a smirk flash across the spy’s face each time he told an untruth—the “duper’s delight.”

Very few people can entirely mask the real emotions that they’re feeling, nor can they fake all the facial cues of an emotion they’re not feeling in just the right sequence. A liar feigning fear might not replicate the telltale way the inner corners of the eyebrows tuck in—which is very hard to manipulate consciously—or maybe he’d do so out of sync with other facial contortions. When I sent Ekman the video of Heene’s makeshift press conference, he wrote back: “He shows one of our most reliable signs of lying, which is [a] FRAGMENT of a shrug, just once, just one shoulder, not definitive but consistent with his lying.”

Detecting fake emotions may be more difficult than identifying a lie. For one thing, facial expressions and body language tend to be remarkably consistent across people and cultures—Ekman discovered, early in his career, that even tribesmen in Papua New Guinea with little exposure to outside culture interpreted expressions the same way the rest of us do. But our manners of displaying emotion are not nearly as universal. We may all bunch our eyebrows when afraid, but we do not all display the same gross behavior when we’re terrified.

“Because people so differ from each other, evaluating whether an emotion is valid or not is very complicated for an observer,” says Jack Mayer, a University of New Hampshire psychologist who pioneered the field of emotional intelligence. For example, Mayer says, those who seem unnaturally subdued during a crisis “may be reacting by hiding what they’re feeling from whoever is observing them.” University of San Francisco psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan brought up the case of Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman who claimed she saw a dingo run off with her infant daughter during a camping trip in 1980. Chamberlain’s stoic response when questioned about the case—captured by Meryl Streep in the docudrama A Cry in the Dark—convinced many that she had murdered her child. Her response did not square with their sense of how a person in that situation should react. Chamberlain was found guilty of the crime and spent several years in prison before the infant’s jacket was discovered, corroborating her version of events.

The trouble with situations like the Heene fiasco or the Willingham case is that most people consider themselves very accurate judges of emotion. We all know from personal experience that it’s fairly easy to pass off a factual lie, so we don’t expect to be able to tell when others are doing the same. But judging someone’s emotional performance seems far more instinctual, and we tend to assume that we’re good at it. (You might say that it’s easier to trust your gut than your brain.) This may be correct—very few people are able to feign emotion with any degree of verisimilitude. The ones who can do it often earn a very handsome living.

I don’t know whether Richard Heene is up on his Stanislavsky, but we know from his Wife Swap appearances that he is a devoted thespian who shows no apparent remorse at manipulating his family or the public in the pursuit of fame. This works in his favor: The fewer conflicting emotions you have behind the one you’re trying to pull off, the less likely you are to “leak” emotions and expose yourself as a fraud. In any case, his acting success on the national stage suggests that we might do well to avoid using a suspect’s emotional response as evidence one way or another.