Troubled teens have problems recognising facial expressions, study reveals
28 May 2009
The study found that people diagnosed with conduct disorder before the age of ten have an impaired ability to recognise anger, disgust and happiness in facial expressions, while those who developed the condition in adolescence have problems recognising fear.
The researchers, from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff, also found that boys with high levels of psychopathic personality traits - such as emotional detachment, high levels of impulsive behaviour and a lack of guilt or remorse - had trouble recognising fear, sadness and surprise.
Conduct disorder is a condition associated with increased physical and verbal aggression toward people and animals, and antisocial behaviour such as vandalism and theft. The condition often persists in those who develop it early in their childhood, becoming antisocial personality disorder in adulthood.
The study involved 80 boys between 14 and 18 years of age with either early-onset or adolescence-onset conduct disorder. They were asked to label the emotion in a series of faces based on six primary emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise). The researchers measured for symptoms of a range of psychiatric illnesses, including conduct disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and major depressive disorder, as well as indicators of psychopathic traits such as emotional detachment, high levels of impulsive behaviour and a lack of guilt or remorse.
The researchers found that the boys with conduct disorder showed significant impairments in their ability to recognise different facial expressions, compared with other teenagers without the disorder.
"Facial expressions are an important source of information about how others are feeling, so this deficit may lead to some of the abnormal social behaviour shown by individuals with conduct disorder," said Dr Graeme Fairchild from the University of Cambridge, who led the study.
"For instance, if an angry face is directed towards you, this suggests that you are doing something wrong and you should modify your behaviour. Our research suggests that individuals with conduct disorder may be insensitive to these types of cues."
"Training individuals with conduct disorder to accurately recognise facial expressions could be a way to help them understand how others are feeling, and might improve their behaviour problems."
The researchers are now running a brain imaging study, also funded by the Trust, as the findings suggest that both forms of conduct disorder may stem from neurological dysfunction.
Image: Florescent Adolescence. Credit: theLaika on Flickr
Fairchild G et al. Deficits in facial expression recognition in male adolescents with early-onset or adolescence-onset conduct disorder. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2009;50:627-36.