Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Children Struggle to Tell When Emotions Are Faked

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that children are unable to tell the difference between genuine and fake sadness from facial expressions – even by the time they leave primary school. However, for happy facial expressions they could distinguish genuine from fake emotions to some extent.

Lead researcher Dr Amy Dawel of the Australian National University said that this may affect children’s ability to build relationships or leave them open to manipulation. “Being able to tell the difference between genuine and fake facial expressions is crucial to social interaction,” she said. “If children are mis­interpreting polite smiles as genuinely happy then they are not picking up important feedback on their own social behaviour. They might think that other children find them funny, or want to make friends, when in fact they are only being polite.”

The study involved children and adults shown pairs of images of facial expressions. One depicted an expression of a genuinely felt emotion, and the other depicted the same person faking an expression of the same emotion. Participants were asked to decide which facial expression was “only pretend”.

“Children can usually tell if someone is just pretending to be happy, but not if they are pretending to be sad,” Dawel said.

For both happy and sad faces, children did not do as well as adults.

Dawel said that the results do not mean that children can never tell whether another person is feeling genuinely sad, because they might be able to do this using other information, such as body language or knowing what caused the emotion. But the results do show that, unlike adults, children are poor at doing this just by looking at a person’s face.

Dawel was surprised to find that children aged 8–12 showed no improvement in their ability to identify genuine facial emotion. “There is absolutely no improvement across that period,” she said.

“This is a skill that develops quite late – some time during the teenage years. So, we are talking about typical kids entering high school and not yet having developed the subtle skills in face emotion recognition that adults take for granted.”