What's going through the mind of a 16-year-old kid who mugs a little old lady? Even a quick glimpse of the fear and anguish on her face would instinctively lead most people to pause and re-assess what they were doing. But for the young offender, these signals don't seem to register.
Why not? Newly published research proposes a simple answer: The kid can't read them. He's not a psychopath (at least in most cases), but when it comes to making sense of widened eyes and an open mouth, he's functionally illiterate.
The good news is this sort of sensitivity can be taught—even to young toughs. And at least in one small-scale British study, this training lead to a reduction in the severity of subsequent crimes committed by the newly knowledgeable delinquents.
"Our findings support our belief that a population of individuals, whose combined offending produces the majority of harm in communities, can be made to behave less aggressively, with the knock-on effect of bringing about a significant drop in serious crime," writes a research team led by Cardiff University psychologist Stephanie van Goozen in a study published in PLoS One.
It's well-established at this point that people who engage in antisocial behavior often have trouble recognizing facial expressions. "Amygdala dysfunctions can impair the ability to correctly process others' distress cues," van Goozen and her colleagues write. "If a person cannot correctly identify the distress they are causing to another person, they are more likely to continue with the behavior that is causing the harm."
Fortunately, a training program to improve recognition of facial cues has been developed to help the recovery of people who suffer brain injuries. The Cardiff researchers were curious to see if it would also have an impact on troubled, violent kids.
Their study featured 50 young offenders between the ages of 12 and 18 who had entered the British equivalent of the juvenile justice system. All were regularly interacting with government officers who used a variety of approaches to try to keep them out of further trouble.
"Only young offenders who participated in the emotion training showed a significant reduction in the severity of the crimes they committed."
Each youngster took an emotion recognition test twice—once at the beginning of the study, and again three to four weeks later. Specifically, they looked at 150 slides of faces displaying one of five basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or disgust) at various degrees of intensity, and were asked to name the feeling being expressed.
In between the tests, 24 of the 50 completed a very short course—two hours over two weeks—designed to enhance emotion recognition. Among other things, they were instructed to "identify the emotional expression of a face, to describe an event that has made them feel this emotion, and mimic the emotion using a mirror."
The training had its desired effect: Those who went through it "showed significant improvement in the recognition of fear and sadness, two emotions known to be difficult to recognize in antisocial individuals." In contrast, the young offenders who did not take the course showed no improvement in recognizing anger or fear, and actually did worse recognizing sadness on the re-test.
So what, if anything, was the practical impact of this newly acquired sensitivity? The researchers collected data on the number and severity of crimes each youth committed during their lifetimes, in the six months before the study began, and in the six months after they took the second test.
"Both groups of offenders showed a reduction in the offending rate," they write—no surprise, given that all were under some degree of official supervision. Most importantly, however, "only young offenders who participated in the emotion training showed a significant reduction in the severity of the crimes they committed."
So while members of the emotion training-group were just as likely as their counterparts to engage in such activities as theft and vandalism, they were less inclined to take part in "high-severity crimes" involving physically aggressive behavior and interpersonal violence. A window into the feelings of their victims apparently prompted many of them to step back.
Given the simplicity and inexpensiveness of emotion recognition training, this is potentially very welcome news, certainly worth replicating on a larger scale. Rather than "scaring kids straight," perhaps the more effective intervention is training them to appreciate the anguish of their victims.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.