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The Angry Face

How children — and their brains — respond to expressions of anger

How good are you at reading faces? It’s a question of more than academic interest. When researchers at the University of Wisconsin showed two groups of children images of angry faces while measuring their brain electrical activity, one group showed a greater response. The children in this group had been physically abused, and their brains had been conditioned to pay more attention to expressions of anger. And this effect was specific to anger — it was not there for images of other emotions the groups viewed. “At home, an angry adult face becomes a cue that is connected with the possibility of physical abuse,” says Alexander Shackman, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study. “In that context, learning to attend very closely to that cue or identify it more readily is adaptive; it may help the child to avoid physical punishment.” But, Shackman says, looking for anger all the time is not healthy. “Seeing a stern look on a teacher’s face and reacting to it as though it were genuine anger, for instance, is a recipe for developing significant anxiety.”

Shackman, in collaboration with University of Wisconsin researcher Seth Pollak, director of the Child Emotion Lab, tested this hypothesis and concluded that in children conditioned to expect anger based on experience at home, the consequences can be profound. The most anxious kids in the study were the same children whose brains were most strongly activated by angry faces.

Faces BlendIn a related study, Pollak’s group showed children blends of different emotional expressions (image reference below) using a series of continuously morphed faces (the same technology used to make Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video). A particular face might be 20 percent angry and 80 percent sad, and the kids had to label the expression. For most of the blends, all of the children responded similarly. But for the angry blends, abused children showed strong evidence of “over-identifying” anger — they would label faces with lower traces of facial anger as angry.

The conclusion: physically maltreated kids “see” anger even when it’s not the dominant expression. “Our intuition is that this ‘signature’ is adaptive in an abusive context — helping a child to more readily detect a cue associated with physical punishment — but that it is toxic elsewhere,” says Shackman.

The implications — from the playground to the boardroom — are that people who grow up in abusive environments may detect anger at the least provocation. And react accordingly.

But Shackman says change is possible. “As a parent, I can only imagine how stressful it is to have a child who is anxious, who is struggling emotionally. I think, though, that the science sends a strong message of hope to families in that situation.

“Someday soon, rather than talking with a child about why he or she is anxious, we might be able to have anxious kids play specialized video games designed to directly target and retrain the brain systems that control the allocation of attention to emotional stimuli — like angry faces.”

Image Reference: Pollak, S. & Kistler, D. (2002). Early experience is associated with the development of categorical representations for facial expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, 99 (13), 9072-9076, doi: 10.1073/pnas.142165999. Copyright 2002 National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. Image Adapted from Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. (1976) Pictures of Facial Affect (Consulting Psychologist’s Press, Palo Alto, CA.)

LEArn More:

In LearnNow’s Lab Visits, you can watch another experiment that deals with how babies respond to parents’ facial expressions in Ellen Galinsky’s “Stepping Off the Visual Cliff”

“How Young Brains Can Combat Stress,” by Bruce McEwen, on how stress and abuse affect young brains — and how those affects can be mitigated

Related Reading:

“Abuse Linked to Anger Fixation,” American Psychological Association

Journal article: “Early experience is associated with the development of categorical representations of expressions of emotion,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Journal article:“Effects of Early Experience on Children’s Recognition of Facial Displays of Emotion,” Developmental Psychology

Journal article:“Mechanisms Linking Early Experience and the Emergence of Emotions: Illustrations From the Study of Maltreated Children,” Current Directions in Psychological Science