An offender in the criminal justice system often seeks to portray themselves as feeling remorse, especially when it comes time for sentencing in front of a judge, or parole hearings and the like. It may be easier to relate to someone who feels genuinely sorry for their crime. And it may be easier to show some mercy to a person who appears to be displaying genuine remorse.

Deception is also a good part of any skilled criminal’s behavioral toolkit, because dumb, honest criminals don’t usually last long.

So how can you detect whether someone is feeling genuine remorse, versus deceptive remorse in order to gain some favor with another person?

Canadian researchers from the University of British Columbia and the Memorial University of Newfoundland set to find out.

In the first investigation of the nature of true and fake remorse, Leanne ten Brinke and colleagues (2011) demonstrated there are “tells” that anyone may be able to learn to better detect fake remorse. Signs of false remorse include:

  • A greater range of emotional expressions
  • Swinging from one emotion to another very quickly (what the researchers term “emotional turbulence”)
  • Speaking with greater hesitation

These findings come from research that ten Brinke and colleagues conduced that examined the facial, verbal and body language behaviors associated with emotional deception in videotaped accounts of true personal wrongdoing among 31 Canadian college students. Subjects were told to relate two true, non-criminal events in their life — one where they felt genuine remorse for, and a second where they felt no or little remorse. In the second event, they were also asked to try and convincingly feign remorse for their actions.

The researchers then painstakingly analyzed nearly 300,000 frames of these taped interviews. They found that those participants who displayed false remorse displayed more of seven universal emotions — happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, surprise, and contempt — than those who were genuinely sorry.

The authors grouped the emotions displayed in facial expressions into three categories:

  • positive (happiness)
  • negative (sadness, fear, anger, contempt, disgust)
  • neutral (neutral, surprise)

They found that participants who were genuinely remorseful did not often swing directly from positive to negative emotions, but went through neutral emotions first. In contrast, those who were deceiving the researchers made more frequent direct transitions between positive and negative emotions, with fewer displays of neutral emotions in between. In addition, during fabricated remorse, students had a significantly higher rate of speech hesitations than during true remorse.

“Our study is the first to investigate genuine and falsified remorse for behavioral cues that might be indicative of such deception,” claim the authors. “Identifying reliable cues could have considerable practical implications — for example for forensic psychologists, parole officers and legal decision-makers who need to assess the truthfulness of remorseful displays.”

The limitations of the study are pretty obvious — it was conducted only on one campus of one Canadian university that recruited 31 young adult college students. Such students may not be the same as a hardened criminal with 20 years of criminal activity behind them, or the same as someone who’s 40 or 60 years old. Age, criminal experience, and specifically studying criminal vignettes (the researchers specifically asked for non-criminal stories, meaning their results are hardly generalizable) may all be factors for future researchers interested in this sort of thing to study.


Since micro-expressions are all the rage due to the popularity of the TV show, “Lie to Me,” it should be interesting to note the researchers had a few things to say about them according to their data… Namely, that micro-expressions were observed both when a person was being genuine as well as when they were trying to be deceptive. Micro-expressions alone are no window to our soul, according to the researchers; they must be carefully considered within proper context.

Micro-expressions also were examined as a potential cue to emotional deceit and relative frequencies suggested that they may reveal one’s true affective state. Micro-expressions often signaled sadness during genuine remorse and anger during fabricated guilt. While sadness is a component of remorse, anger is generally considered to be discordant with feelings of regret (Smith, 2008). Thus, these very brief expressions may indeed reveal covert (and unconcealed) feelings, as proposed by Ekman and Friesen (1975).

The finding that micro-expressions (overall) were equally common among genuine and deceptive expressions highlights the importance of considering the expressed emotion in context rather than simply interpreting the presence of a micro-expression as a signal of deceit.

It also is interesting to note that anger—an emotion singled out by Darwin (1872)—was revealed by the upper face (Ekman et al., 2002). The muscles underling these action units should be of specific interest in future investigations as they may be those which Darwin (1872) described as being ‘‘least obedient to the will’’ (p. 79).

Despite the (tenuous) support for microexpressions as a cue to deceit reported here, it should be noted that micro-expressions occurred in less than 20% of all narratives and were not an infallible cue to deception (or truth) in all cases [emphasis added]. While further research on this phenomenon certainly is warranted, empirical research to date suggests that over-reliance on micro-expressions (e.g. in security settings; Ekman, 2006) as an indicator of credibility is likely to be ineffective (Weinberger, 2010).

Interesting stuff indeed.


ten Brinke L et al (2011). Crocodile tears: facial, verbal and body language behaviours associated with genuine and fabricated remorse. Law and Human Behavior; DOI 10.1007/s10979-011-9265-5