How much does an inability to read facial cues factor into violent crime?

Stephanie van Goozen answers

Violent crime is clearly caused by multiple factors and it is obvious that inability to read facial cues is not the only cause. What our research shows is that facial emotion recognition impairments are pervasive in antisocial youths, and if the theory is right, then poor face recognition can cause violence and aggression. The reasoning for this is that if someone cannot correctly identify or process the distress they are causing to another person, they are more likely to continue with the behavior that is causing the harm.

Interesting questions are what causes impaired emotion recognition, and can we do something about it? Recognition of emotion is learned through experience, and based on the gradual refinement with age of children's production and recognition of emotional signals. Young children who are good at recognizing other people’s emotions are more socially skilled and more popular, but the reverse process also exists. Children who are maltreated (neglected or physically abused) and are exposed to aberrant emotional signals from their parents show a range of emotion recognition deficits. We know that young offenders often come from environments that are less supportive of the development of emotion recognition abilities—fear and sadness recognition in particular. Children from relatively deprived socioeconomic backgrounds are significantly more at risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties and may have been provided with fewer opportunities to learn what the features of emotional distress are. Poor recognition of distress in others prevents the elicitation of appropriate empathic responses, and this is intrinsically linked with antisocial development.

We show in our study that emotion recognition can be improved in youths who come into contact with the police for a wide range of different types of antisocial behavior problems by administering a relatively brief, targeted intervention. Importantly, the training had a positive effect on criminal behavior by reducing re-offense severity. This suggests that interventions that target neuropsychological impairments in young at-risk adolescents, in whom the brain is still developing, are not only relatively easily achievable, but also have a beneficial impact on the lives of young people and their communities. It is less sure whether similar effects can be obtained in violent adults, including psychopaths.

Stephanie van Goozen is a biological psychologist studying developmental psychopathology at Cardiff University.