The Relation of Facial Affect Recognition and Empathy to Delinquency in Youth Offenders

By Carr, Mary B.; Lutjemeier, John A. | Adolescence, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Relation of Facial Affect Recognition and Empathy to Delinquency in Youth Offenders


Carr, Mary B., Lutjemeier, John A., Adolescence


Facial expressions of emotions provide a means of communicating and obtaining information about one's social environment (Blanck, Buck, & Rosenthal, 1986; Ekman, 1982) and provide cues to interpersonal exchanges (Custrini & Feldman, 1989). Bandura (1986) pointed out that the ability to read the signs of emotions has important adaptive value in guiding actions toward others. Anticipating and responding to the emotional cues of others are key components in social interaction. These components rely on discrimination and production, or decoding and encoding, of facial expressions. Reading or decoding emotions in faces is a basic task involved in perception and has been identified in young children and in infants (Charlesworth & Kreutzer, 1973; Field & Walden, 1981). Similarly, producing or encoding nonverbal cues are skills that are fairly well established at an early age (Flin & Dziurawiec, 1989).

Darwin (1872/1998) was one of the first scientists to propose a universal set of facial expressions. Since then, investigators have recognized at least six primary emotions: surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and happiness (Ekman & Friesen, 1975). Researchers have agreed that all other facial expressions of emotion are composed of combinations of these six. In general, facial discrimination studies suggest that positive expressions are more reliably discriminated than negative expressions (Buck, 1973; Charlesworth & Kreutzer, 1973; Field & Walden, 1982). Facial expressions that depict bipolar emotions, such as happy/sad, have been found to be easier to discriminate than those that share common features, such as sad/mad. Additionally, discrimination improves with age, and females generally show greater skill than males at both decoding and encoding (Hall, 1984; Fridlund, Ekman, & Oster, 1987). With respect to cultural similarities, studies have shown that people of different cultures make similar facial expressions in similar situations, and that they can correctly identify the emotional significance of facial expressions displayed by people of other cultures (Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969; Izard, 1971).

A review of the literature reveals that distinguishing facial affect has been shown to be problematic for children and adolescents with emotional, behavioral or learning difficulties. Studies have shown that adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders have responded with less accuracy than those of their non-disordered peers on ability to recognize primary emotions in facial expressions (Zabel, 1979; Nowicki & DiGirolamo, 1989; Walker, 1981; Walker & Leister, 1994). Additionally, children and adolescents with conduct disorder (Strand & Nowicki, 1999) and externalizing problems (Lancelot & Nowicki, 1997) have demonstrated a reduced ability to accurately interpret emotions in facial expressions as compared to controls without these disorders. Impairments in facial affect recognition skills have also been detected in children with schizotypal personality style (Baum, Logan, Walker, Tomlinson, & Schiffman, 1996) and social phobia (Simonian, Beidel, Turner, Berkes, & Long, 2001) compared with normal controls. Selective impairments in the recognition of both sad and fearful expressions have been found in children with psychopathic tendencies (Stevens, Charman, & Blair, 2001). Children and adolescents with learning disabilities (Holder & Kirkpatrick, 1991; Dimitrovsky, Spector, Levy-Shiff, & Vakil, 1998) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (Ingram, 1996) have also shown deficits in interpretation of emotions in facial expressions. Deficits in reading emotion in facial expressions have also been found to be related to lower levels of social competence in children (Goonan, 1995).

It has been suggested that facial affect recognition might interact with skills such as cognitive understanding of social interactions and expressing empathy (Cooley & Triemer, 2002). …

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