Antisocial Behavior and Facial Recognition

We often tell children that bullies struggle with their own self-esteem, but they may also struggle with an even more fundamental skill!

Groundbreaking research suggests that those with severe antisocial behavior actually fail in properly recognizing emotions in other humans. A team of researchers from the University of Bath and the University of Southampton examined both male and female teenagers who had been diagnosed with conduct disorder, finding that they are often unable to detect emotion and rarely make eye contact.

Conduct disorders refer to a set of antisocial behaviors that often features dishonest behavior, theft, or even aggression towards people and animals. Due to the distrustful nature of many of those with these conditions, treatment can be extremely challenging, making further research into these conditions incredibly important.

The study authors analyzed a group of teens with conduct disorders as they attempted to identify emotions displayed through pictures and video clips. When compared to a control group, they found that the teens with conduct disorders were significantly worse at accurately identifying emotions, with the boys scoring even lower than girls.

Simultaneously, they analyzed the participants’ eye movements as they sought to recognize those emotions. While they did find that the participants tended to avoid looking at the eyes, this alone did not explain their lack of emotional recognition. Even when they did examine the eyes, those with conduct disorders still tended to score poorly.

Senior study author, Dr. Graeme Fairchild emphasized the importance of using these results to bolster treatment, saying “These findings could lead to the development of new treatments aiming to enhance emotion recognition and empathy or even prevention programmes for at-risk children.”

The idea of providing more effective treatment for conduct disorders resonates strongly given the ongoing challenges in this sort of therapy. Antisocial youth tend to be especially resistant to treatment and distrustful adults, making it even harder for therapists and children to address their behavioral difficulties.

Another interesting aspect of the study was its findings on gender differences: namely the fact that boys tended to perform worse than girls. This even held amongst the control group which lacked conduct disorders.

Another author, Dr. Nayra Martin-Key observed that “that interventions designed to improve emotion recognition might need to be tailored according to gender, with boys with Conduct Disorder needing a longer or more comprehensive intervention than girls.”

Perhaps the gender disparity is not surprising. In an earlier blog, we observed that there is a distinctive difference in emotional intelligence between boys and girls, rooted in the way they tend to be raised.

For more information on the role of eyes in emotional recognition, check out our blogs here and here!

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