New research suggest a two-hour training program may reap huge societal rewards by reducing the likelihood that juvenile lawbreakers will escalate their criminal behavior.
Scientists believe an emotional awareness course can make young offenders less aggressive and reduce the seriousness of their future crimes.
In the first ever study of its kind, psychologists from Cardiff University in the U.K. recorded a 44 percent drop in the severity of crimes committed by persistent re-offenders. The reduction was experienced six months following the completion of a course designed to improve the jueveniles ability to recognize other people’s emotions.
The findings are published the PLOS ONE journal.
Much has been published previously to suggest that adolescents who display antisocial behavior have problems in facial emotional recognition, particularly fear and sadness.
In the study, researchers sought to improve the way in which teens perceive these emotions. Investigators believe they through training, they can instill in young offenders a stronger sense of empathy for potential victims — and consequently, a reduction in physical aggression and instances of severe crime.
To explore this idea, they studied the emotion recognition capabilities and criminal activity of 50 juvenile offenders (with an average age of 16) from the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Offending Services (YOS).
While all the participants of the study received their statutory intervention involving contact with a caseworker, as ordered by the courts, a sub-group of 24 offenders also took part the research team’s facial affect training. The training was aimed at improving a teen’s emotion recognition capabilities and was similar to a program normally used to rehabilitate patients with brain damage.
Offenders in the sub-group and those only receiving statutory intervention were matched for age, socioeconomic status, IQ, and criminal history. During the study, each group was tested twice for emotion recognition performance, and recent crime data was collected six months after testing had been completed.
Lead author Professor Stephanie Van Goozen, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said, “Poor emotion recognition in children and adolescents can cause antisocial behavior. Our study shows that this recognition can be corrected using an approach that is both cost-effective and relatively quick.
“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.
“We would like to extend this research to younger age groups, particularly to children who are at risk of developing antisocial behavior later in life that could result in violence, substance abuse, health problems, and psychiatric illness.
“Emotion recognition training could set children on a much more positive path in life, one which doesn’t have to involve serious crime or violence against others, to the benefit of society and themselves.”
Researchers measuring the severity of participants’ crimes used a score system ranging from one to eight: one indicates a public order offense while eight means murder. The average offense severity of the facial affect training sub-group was 3.75 six months prior to training, dropping to 2.08 six months after.
Facial affect training consists of several levels of emotional tasks, where participants are required, among other scenarios, to identify the emotional expression of a face, to describe an event that has made them feel that emotion and mimic the emotion using a mirror.
Tasks also include focusing on specified features of an emotional face and selecting the correct description of that feature from several options.
The emotion recognition test consists of 150 slides presented on a laptop, displaying facial expressions — including happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust — at varying degrees of emotional intensity. Participants have to guess what emotion is displayed.
These findings are consistent with the results of a study conducted at Bristol University in 2013, in which researchers succeeded in modifying a tendency for aggressive youths to interpret anger in ambiguous expressions. Participants reported feeling less aggressive and acting less aggressively for two weeks following the intervention.
Source: Cardiff University/EurekAlert