Faces and Feelings

by John A. Speyrer

A number of years ago our local newspaper carried an article about a study, conducted by Sean Austin, which concluded that violent behavior may be due to the inability of the a hostile person to correctly identify the facial expressions of the person against whom he directs violence.

The relationship between facial expressions and their interpretation by violent juvenile delinquents compared with non-violent juveniles was the focus of the study. It revealed that the violent group were often unable to correctly identify the emotions which lay behind facial expresssions. Based on ten years of research, the study concluded that the violent teenagers' inability to correctly perceive other people facial expressions makes them see anger and hostility when neither are present. Austin believes that since both groups had similar environments, the deficiency in correct perception was not due to home socialization, but in fact may nonetheless be learned.

With co-researcher William McCown, an experiment was conducted in an attempt to retrain youths to correctly identify facial expression in order to reduce inappropriate behavior. As a result of the training, it was felt that the amount of hostility was reduced as compared to the control group who were in standard psychotherapy.

Austin and McCown have reported that positive results have been made in retraining youths at developing skills in correctly identifying facial expressions. It was hoped this would result is reduced hostility and improved behavior.

Training individuals to correctly identify the underlying emotions in the faces of people with whom they come in contact misses the point completely, since it ignores the reason why the misinterpretation is made in the first place. A hint that perhaps the research was going in the right direction was revealed when Austin said that his ". . . experience is that delinquent adolescents have a hard time making eye contact. That maybe because they don't want to see disapproval."

Unfortuately this approach to understanding the problem was not followed through. It is undoubtedly true that eye contact is avoided because the delinquents don't want to see disapproval, but the story does not end there. Realizing this is only the beginning in understanding why violent people avoid eye contact.


There are any number of ways that an infant finds out whether he is loved or not. One of the most important avenues to this knowledge is through the sense of vision. Recent studies have backed up this truth learned in primal and the regressive psychotherapies -- that vision in new-born infants is very well developed.

There have been many reports of individuals in such therapies re-living early crib experiences which involved the sense of vision. In a large number of cases the patients arrives at the conclusion that he is unloved by the appearance of his parent's eyes and face. The frown, the indifference, the angry look of the infant's mother or father instantly reveals to the newborn that he is not being welcomed into the family; the facial expressions of the significant others shows that he is neither wanted nor loved. It is not only the eyes, but facial expressions as well which reveal the mirror of one's soul. For this reason it should come as no surprise that violently delinquent juveniles often find making eye contact difficult and uncomfortable.

Each time the delinquent juvenile makes eye contact with someone, he may be re-living the way he received early confirmation that he was unliked. Thus he may experience the pain of rejection in the present, whether real or imagined, because of the closeness to his easily triggered primal memories.

Because of his own early vision-induced conclusions as to his acceptability as a person he has become exquisitely sensitive to not only gross rejection but to even hints of possible rejection. The rejection in the present may not be real, but his mind may not distinguish between the present day reality and his early childhood rejection. For these reasons it should not be any cause for wonder that he misinterprets others' facial expressions.


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