Detecting facial expressions of pain in children

Dr. Annie Roy-Carland discusses her research on deciphering real, fake or suppressed pain

On Nov. 2, Dr. Annie Roy-Charland from the Université de Moncton gave a seminar on reading facial expressions of pain in children. Roy-Charland’s talk focused on the ability of parents and nurses to discern whether children are experiencing genuine, fake or suppressed pain.

Roy-Charland began the lecture by outlining how our facial expressions give cues for others’ behaviour. “When we are expressing pain we are hoping that we’ll get people’s attention and they will see we are in need of care. This is even more so for children because they are not always able to verbally express that they are in pain. It’s very important for us to be able to read their little faces and say, ‘Oh, this kid is in pain. I need to do something about it,’ ” she said.

Polygraphs, or lie detector tests, were invented in 1921, and a very similar model is still used today. This method of testing public service workers such as policemen, firemen and paramedics is a $2 billion industry in the United States.

Roy-Charland explained that certain muscles in our faces are activated when we feel pain. However, we can manually activate these muscles if we are trying to fake a certain emotion. She asked the audience to think of a situation: “It’s Christmas and you get a pair of gray socks from your grandma. It’s not the best gift in the world. You get gray socks but you’re not going to tell Grandma, ‘I’m so disappointed that you got me those stupid gray socks.’ You’re going to say, ‘Oh thanks Grandma, I’m so happy, that’s what I wanted, yay.’ So you’re lying to Grandma and you’re using your face to help you in lying to Grandma. We’re able to mask our real emotions with a smile, a frequent [muscle activation] that we do,” she said.

“When we’re working with children it would be very useful to be able to decipher between these expressions because kids can fake too,” Roy-Charland said. However, what she found through her study is that people are not very good at this.

The seven children participating in the study were put through three conditions. First, they had to put their hand in a container of ice water and hold it there for 30 seconds. Their genuine facial reactions to the pain of the cold water were recorded with a camera. Next, they had to put their hand back in the container, but this time they were told they had to pretend they were not feeling anything at all and act as neutral as possible. For the last video, they had to put their hand in warm water but act like it was in the cold water and that they were in pain. These films were shown to the parents and nurses who had to guess if the child was experiencing genuine, fake or suppressed pain.

“They were the least accurate for the fake,” said Roy-Charland of the results. “The averages were between 40 and 68 per cent. If these were your grades at university you probably wouldn’t be satisfied.”

The study also looked at the correlation between the accuracy of the subjects’ answers and the confidence they expressed in their answers. “There’s a negative correlation: the more confident you are, the less accurate you are,” said Roy-Charland.

Roy-Charland also mentioned that she has many masters students researching this topic with her. “I’m doing my PhD in lie detection and I just loved facial expression as soon as I started studying it,” said Adele Gallant, a masters student from U de M. She found the Mount Allison seminar useful because there are so many different variables and facets to look into. “People here just asking questions gives you ideas you might not have thought of before,” she said.

This seminar was part of the honours seminar in psychology. Dr. Geneviève Desmarais, an associate professor in the psychology department and one of the organizers of the seminar, said she hopes students take away that lie detection isn’t as easy as it seems in media. “We’re actually really bad at it,” she said.

Desmarais also talked about why the department brings in professors from other places for these seminars. “Our students get to know our research fairly well because our honours students are involved in our research. They hear about each other’s projects and they’re hearing about what’s going on in our lab because our students are woven into our larger projects. So [these seminars] give them a different perspective. We get people who talk about different things and different areas.”

Élise Vaillancourt, a fourth-year psychology student, said she attended the seminar because she found the topic really interesting. “I think the psych department is bringing in really great speakers,” she said. “It’s a good year.”

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