Computer Program Can Tell When You're Faking Pain

computer can detect fake pain in the neckAnyone reading this blog is unlikely to be faking their neck pain but those who are may soon be found out by a computer than can detect fake expressions of pain better than people can. Insurance companies are sure to be on board with this newly developed piece of software that carefully analyses facial expressions to determine if a person is responding to actual pain or simply pretending.

The computer program was designed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo and the University of Toronto. These scientists carried out two experiments using 205 human observers who were given the task of determining if a person’s pained expression in a series of video clips was due to actual pain being inflicted or was faked.

Computer Can Tell Fake Pain with 85% Accuracy

The human analysts were even given training to improve their ability to recognise faked emotions but the majority of the time (55%) they were unable to discern the real from the fake. The computer program meanwhile, had an 85% accuracy rate based on facial movement measurements and pattern recognition software.

This ability has been linked to the program’s capacity to distinguish subtle differences between pyramidally and extrapyramidally driven movements. For example, those who are pretending to be in pain tend to open and close their mouth more often and with less variation than those experiencing genuine pain. When given training, the human volunteers hecame slightly better at detecting fake pain expressions but their success was still only just better than chance.

How We Create Fake Pain Expressions

Fake facial expressions are under the control of the cortical pyramidal motor system, which controls voluntary facial expressions. However, a different motor pathway, the subcortical extrapyramidal motor system is behind the spontaneous response we have to pain as seen in the the face. This computer system is able to distinguish between the two and thus spot likely faking of pain.

Whether this technology soon makes its way to a clinician’s office near you remains to be seen, but it seems likely that having a medical insurance claim denied will surely be a real enough pain in the neck for some if it does become mainstream. And, as a computer now exists that can pass the Turing Test, it looks like we might not even be able to tell if our fake pain is being detected by a real person or not.


Marian Stewart Bartlett, Gwen C. Littlewort, Mark G. Frank, Kang Lee, Automatic Decoding of Facial Movements Reveals Deceptive Pain Expressions. Current Biology, Volume 24, Issue 7, 31 March 2014, Pages 738–743.

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