Seeing happiness in ambiguous facial expressions reduces aggressive behaviour, study finds

March 27, 2013
Seeing happiness in ambiguous facial expressions reduces aggressive behaviour, study finds

(Medical Xpress)—Encouraging young people at high-risk of criminal offending and delinquency to see happiness rather than anger in facial expressions results in a decrease in their levels of anger and aggression, new research from the University of Bristol has found.

The study, led by Professor Marcus Munafò and Professor Ian Penton-Voak, explored the relationship between recognition of emotion in ambiguous facial expressions and and behaviour, both in healthy adults and in adolescent youth considered to be at high-risk of committing crime.

The researchers showed it was possible to experimentally modify in to encourage the perception of over anger when viewing ambiguous expressions. This resulted in a decrease in measures of self-reported anger and aggression in both healthy adults and high-risk adolescents, and also for independently-rated in the adolescents.

To modify these biases, participants were shown composite images of facial expressions that were happy, angry or emotionally ambiguous and asked to rate them as happy or angry. This established a baseline balance point of how likely they were to read ambiguous faces as angry. The researchers then used feedback to nudge some of the participants away from this negativity bias by telling them that some of the ambiguous faces they had previously labelled as angry were in fact happy.

In the first experiment in 40 healthy volunteers, this ultimately resulted in the participants learning to identify happiness in these faces rather than anger – and these participants subsequently reported lower levels of anger and aggression in themselves.

The experiment was then repeated with 46 adolescents aged 11 to 16 years old who had been referred to a youth programme, either by the courts or by schools, as being at of committing crime and with a of aggressive behaviour.

Again, participants trained to recognise happiness rather than anger in the ambiguous faces reported less aggressive behaviour. In addition, incidences of aggressive behaviour – as recorded independently by programme staff in the week before and the two weeks following the training – were also reduced.

To test this result further, the researchers then ran a different experiment on a further 53 healthy volunteers which did not rely on explicit feedback to change the way participants judged .

Previous studies have shown that prolonged viewing of an image subsequently alters the perception of similar images, so one group of participants was shown only angry faces while a control group looked at an equal mix of happy and angry faces.

The researchers found that those shown only angry faces subsequently shifted their perceptions and became more likely to see happiness in ambiguous faces. Again, they also reported lower levels of anger and aggression in themselves.

Professor Munafo said: "Our results provide strong evidence that emotion processing plays a causal role in anger and the maintenance of aggressive behaviour. This could potentially lead to novel behavioural treatments in the future."

The results are published in the journal Psychological Science.

Explore further: Recognition of anger, fear, disgust most affected in dementia

More information: Penton-Voak, I. et al. Increasing Recognition of Happiness in Ambiguous Facial Expressions Reduces Anger and Aggressive Behavior, Psychological Science.

Related Stories

Recognition of anger, fear, disgust most affected in dementia

October 4, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- A new study on emotion recognition has shown that people with frontotemporal dementia are more likely to lose the ability to recognise negative emotions, such as anger, fear and disgust, than positive ...

Lack of empathy following traumatic brain injury linked to reduced responsiveness to anger

June 28, 2011
Egocentric, self-centred, and insensitive to the needs of others: these social problems often arise in people with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and have been attributed in part to a loss of emotional empathy, the capacity ...

Recommended for you

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.