Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Reading and reacting to faces, the effect of facial mimicry in improving facial emotion recognition in individuals with antisocial behavior and psychopathic traits”, by Kyranides, M. N.; Petridou, M.; Gokani, H. A.; Hill, S. and Fanti, K. A. (2022), in which authors investigate how people with antisocial personality disorder and/or psychopathic personality disorder recognize and answer to facial expressions.

Both antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy are associated with severe antisocial traits.

Antisocial personality disorder (APD from now on) has an identity of its own, and by many intellectuals, psychopathy is considered as part of it. However, other experts believe that psychopathy can be considered as a personality itself, and not as a behavioral trait.

Psychopathy, as we have already explained, would include the traits of the dark triad, which encompasses affective, interpersonal, and behavioral characteristics.

Correctly interpreting and transmitting affective and emotional states is crucial for social relationships and healthy group functioning of human beings.

Facial expressiveness plays a central role in interpersonal relationships, as it communicates silent social cues and helps reinforce acceptable social behaviors. In addition, it is a non-verbal channel that we pay a lot of attention to.

Previous studies suggest that people with psychopathic traits are characterized by deficiencies in facial emotion recognition, which, in turn, results in poor social adaptation and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.

This raises the idea that similar deficits seen in people with antisocial personality disorder are due to the disorder itself or are the result of psychopathic features, although whether the latter are part of the antisocial disorder is unclear.

This week’s study aimed to differentiate the emotion-processing deficits of individuals with these traits, by examining how people with antisocial personality disorder, people with psychopathic disorder, and people with both, identify affective facial expressions and how they obey the instructions in which they are asked to imitate these expressions.

Empirical evidence suggests that people with psychopathic traits will show deficiencies in emotion recognition, but especially in facial expressions of fear and sadness.

Regarding antisocial personality disorder, very few people have explored the matter. In a 2014 study, more severe deficiencies in disgust recognition were found in a sample of people with APD compared to the control group. In 2002, deficiencies in the correct identification of happy and sad facial expressions were found, but no study controlled the psychopathic features that appeared in subjects with APD.

If these people theoretically experience difficulties in identifying the emotions of others, would they be capable of practicing facial mimicry?

Individuals with typical personality development engage in facial mimicry automatically when observing the expressions of others, and this has been associated with empathy.

However, the findings regarding facial mimicry in individuals with psychopathic traits are diverse. For example, according to one study, they have intact the ability to accurately mimic the expression of fear; according to another, they have difficulty reflecting negative emotions.

Something that seems to be logical is that if people with psychopathic traits and people with TPA have deficits in their ability to be empathic, they will have some kind of difficulty in correctly imitating the emotions of others. But, as we see, it is something that seems not to be confirmed.

For this study, 107 people over 18 years old were gathered, who were evaluated individually. They were presented with dynamic stimuli of facial expressions of sadness, happiness, anger, fear, and pain, in addition to neutral expressions. They had to imitate the presented expressions, suppress any facial response elicited by the stimulus, or do nothing and only answer the question of what facial expression was being displayed.

The results showed that facial recognition accuracy was significantly worse in the group that had psychopathic traits and APD at the same time, compared to the control group. In addition, the psychopathic traits + APD group showed increased choice of angry facial expression compared to the others. Surprisingly, the group that only had APD, showed more pronounced facial expressions when they had to mimic the expressions shown to them.

These findings are in line with previous work on the deficiencies of these people in the recognition of facial emotions and point towards the idea that the presence of psychopathic traits, isolated from antisocial personality, may represent a profile in itself, in which individuals would function in a similar way, but also different.

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