Children who've suffered abuse at the hands of a parent are more likely to see anger in ambiguous faces than their peers who weren't victims of such aggression, a new study has found.
Since recognizing faces is considered a once-key survival skill passed down by evolution, the researchers say abused children may adapt to threatening environments by looking for signs of impending aggression. Doing so is an act of self-preservation, but it also has steep social costs. Hypersensitivity can lead to mangled intentions and missed signs of benign emotions.
"I believe these children are adapting and coping. They're doing exactly what you would want your brain to do," says Seth Pollak, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin and a co-author of the study.
Problems of interpretation arise when these children journey out of their abusive environments and into situations, such as school, where their exquisite sense of hostility isn't necessary.
"They become oversensitive to threats and signs of anger, and they miss other evidence that someone isn't angry at them," says Pollak, whose work appears in tomorrow's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That leads to botched readings of social cues that can have destructive consequences for themselves and others.
"They are on lookout for anger because they are in jeopardy," says Paul Ekman, a face recognition expert at the University of California, San Francisco. He adds the new findings jibe with his own work showing that people in institutional settings are more adept at picking up on lies about emotions.
"People in jeopardy also need to be on alert for those who might mislead them," he says.
Pollak and a colleague, Doris Kistler, showed a slate of computer-morphed faces to 40 children, 23 of whom were undergoing treatment for the emotional fallout from past physical abuse. The children, whose average age was 9, were told to name the predominant emotion in the images of a man and a woman displaying varying proportions of fear, happiness, sadness and anger. The faces blended in increments of 10 percent.
Both groups were adept at distinguishing happiness, sadness and fear when the three were mixed. However, the abused children were much more likely to see anger where only traces of it existed, and to consider it the overriding emotion. While children with no history of abuse considered faces angry only when they expressed at least 70 percent of that emotion, the abused children saw anger even in faces diluted with 60 percent sadness or fear.
Pollak says the findings challenge a long-held but shifting belief that the ability to read emotions is hard-wired in the brain. Now, he says, it seems clear there is at least a strong element of learning in the way children respond to these cues.
The looming question to address, Pollak says, is whether the inability to correctly assess emotional prompts in childhood is permanent damage, or if it can be fixed.
Here, he is an optimist: "If we can develop the right kind of intervention, then this is something we can re-teach people."
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