How Those With Schizophrenia Misinterpret Social Cues

People who suffer from schizophrenia often misinterpret social cues, which can lead to unpleasant and often paranoid or persecutory thoughts. A new study provides insight into this misperception.

Researchers believe their findings, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, could foster psychological interventions to assist people with schizophrenia better interpret social cues and perhaps ease related symptoms.

Investigator Dr. Sukhi Shergill of King’s College London, said, “Humans are social beings, often finding joy in interacting with others. While most attention is on talking with each other, non-verbal behavior such as gestures, body movement, and facial expression also play a very important role in conveying the message.

“However, the message being conveyed is not always clear, or perceived as a positive one, and an extreme example is evident in patients suffering from schizophrenia who show a strong tendency to misinterpret the intentions of other people in a malevolent manner.”

In the study, investigators studied the behavior of 54 participants, including 29 people with schizophrenia, as they viewed the body position and gestures of an actor on a silent video clip. The video included gestures such as putting a finger to the lips to indicate ‘be quiet’ or incidental movements such as scratching an eye.

Researchers found that patients with schizophrenia are able to interpret meaningful gestures and incidental movements as accurately as healthy subjects. However, when the direction of the gestures was ambiguous (i.e. not obviously directed at or away from them), they were much more likely to misinterpret the gestures as being directed towards them.

Investigators believe this could indicate an increased tendency to self-infer these ambiguous social cues or to “hyper-mentalize,” falsely inferring intent in the actions of others.

Both of these misinterpretations could strengthen paranoid thoughts experienced by patients with schizophrenia, said the study authors. Moreover, the patients’ confidence in their interpretation was found to be strongly associated with their tendency to experience hallucinatory symptoms.

“Our study offers a basis for psychological interventions aimed at improving gestural interpretation,” Shergill said. “It could also provide guidance for health professionals and care-givers on how to communicate with patients who have schizophrenia, in order to reduce misinterpretations of non-verbal behavior.”

Emerging technology can help to improve communication as well as enhance quality of life among individuals with schizophrenia.

“The recent advent of adaptable virtual-reality technology provides a means of investigating the psychological effects of gestural communication with greater flexibility, which may prove a boon for our future understanding of social deficits in schizophrenia,” said Shergill.

Source: Kings College London/EurekAlert
People talking photo by shutterstock.