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

The state of the universe.
Oct. 30 2009 10:54 AM

Emote Control

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

Richard Heene. Click image to expand.
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.

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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."

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