Retraining Brain For Smiles Lowers Aggression
Christopher Philip

New research published in the journal Psychological Science has found that it is possible to modify biases in emotion recognition and this can dampen feelings of anger and aggression.

We come across faces daily, but most of them aren’t sending out much of anything. “People don’t just go around the world smiling or grimacing or frowning,” says lead research Munafo University of Bristol. “The majority of the facial expressions that you come into contact with — people walking past you in the street, for example — will be ambiguous to some extent.” It isn’t as if people are open books, honest and forthcoming with their intentions. Because faces are ambiguous, we’re forced to interpret them.

A face coming to you might signal a degree of threat around their eyes, but this might indicate surprise instead.

“When you see someone just looking relatively neutral,” Munafo explains, “then it’s really down to you which of those interpretations you choose, and different groups of people see different things.”

Previous research has shown that people suffering from depression, rate ambiguous faces around them as sadness more often that those who are not suffering from depression. Those suffering from anxiety, on the other hand, see fear. It turns out that we all carry our personal biases.

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The current study looked at those suffering from aggression. “People with aggression show a tendency to interpret ambiguity as reflecting hostility,” Munafo says. This makes sense, he continues, “If you’ve grown up in a tough environment where actually a lot of the time people are out to get you, then that default assumption is probably a relatively safe assumption to make. The problem is when you take that assumption into a more benign environment, into the wider world, if you like, and start responding inappropriately to people who have no hostile intent.”

This can lead to a cycle that tends to repeat itself. The more aggression you experience, the more you see it in others and the more people tend to act aggressively in return. It starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To end the cycle, Munafo and his colleagues designed a study involving trouble teens most of which carried a criminal conviction.

First, the experimenters had subjects identify emotions on a series of faces. Some of the faces where obviously happy with wide smiles, others were clearly angry with furrowed brows and tense faces. Other faces fell someplace in between. In all, 15 faces made the set and subjects had to judge whether the face was happy or angry.
The experimenters aimed to assess the “set point” at which the teens switched from a happy face to an angry face.

One set of kids received nothing further, but for the other group, they were taken back by two set points, that is two images they previously judged to be angry was re-taught to them as happy. To do this, the students were given the same task each day for one week. During this task, as the faces were presented, they were provided feedback. Should they label one of the two previous faces as angry rather than happy, the researchers informed them or their mistake.

The researchers also tracked the progress the kids made after the treatment. The kids who received treatment experienced a 30% decline in aggression versus the kids who received none.

Similar results have been found in people suffering from anxiety and depression. Ian Penton-Voak, another psychologist who assisted in the study says the value of the work is clear “It demonstrates that the way you see the emotional world around you affects your behavior in a kind of causal way.”

The take-away message is clear, intervention can help re-prime the brain to see the world in a much less aggressive and hostile manner. This can produce effective changes in kids at risk.

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Ian S. Penton-Voak; Jamie Thomas; Suzanne H. Gage; Mary McMurran; Sarah McDonald; and Marcus R. Munafò. Increasing Recognition of Happiness in Ambiguous Facial Expressions Reduces Anger and Aggressive Behavior. Psychological Science. 2013; 24(5): 688-697.

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