Research Article: Emotion Recognition and Perspective Taking: A Comparison between Typical and Incarcerated Male Adolescents

Date Published: January 25, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Larisa Morosan, Deborah Badoud, Alexandra Zaharia, Tobias Brosch, Stephan Eliez, Anthony Bateman, Patrick Heller, Martin Debbané, Carles Soriano-Mas.


Previous research suggests that antisocial individuals present impairment in social cognitive processing, more specifically in emotion recognition (ER) and perspective taking (PT). The first aim of the present study was to investigate the recognition of a wide range of emotional expressions and visual PT capacities in a group of incarcerated male adolescents in comparison to a matched group of community adolescents. Secondly, we sought to explore the relationship between these two mechanisms in relation to psychopathic traits.

Forty-five male adolescents (22 incarcerated adolescents (Mage = 16.52, SD = 0.96) and 23 community adolescents (Mage = 16.43, SD = 1.41)) participated in the study. ER abilities were measured using a dynamic and multimodal task that requires the participants to watch short videos in which trained actors express 14 emotions. PT capacities were examined using a task recognized and proven to be sensitive to adolescent development, where participants had to follow the directions of another person whilst taking into consideration his perspective.

We found a main effect of group on emotion recognition scores. In comparison to the community adolescents, the incarcerated adolescents presented lower recognition of three emotions: interest, anxiety and amusement. Analyses also revealed significant impairments in PT capacities in incarcerated adolescents. In addition, incarcerated adolescents’ PT scores were uniquely correlated to their scores on recognition of interest.

The results corroborate previously reported impairments in ER and PT capacities, in the incarcerated adolescents. The study also indicates an association between impairments in the recognition of interest and impairments in PT.

Partial Text

Antisocial behavior is characterized by the violation of social norms and the rights of others [1]. Individuals characterized as being antisocial constitute a heterogeneous group, and previous research has conceptualized their behavior in different ways, using terms such as aggression and delinquency. When such behaviors meet diagnostic criteria, a number of psychiatric diagnoses might apply (e.g., conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder or antisocial personality disorder). Research into the personality basis of antisocial behavior suggests that psychopathy, defined by lack of affectivity, a deceitful interpersonal style, and impulsive and irresponsible behavior, might foster the development of antisocial behavior, being associated with more severe, aggressive, and stable antisocial behaviors [2,3]. The developmental trajectories of antisocial youths are marked by serious personal, social, and educational challenges, and the damage resulting from their behaviors and the necessary means to regulate them incur notable costs to society [4]. Manifestations of antisocial behavior during adolescence might represent precursors of more serious antisocial problems in adulthood [5]. Thus, investigating the factors implicated in the early manifestations of antisocial behavior could contribute with crucial information toward a better understanding of these behaviors, and might inform early prevention and intervention strategies.

The present study aimed to investigate the emotion recognition (ER) and visual perspective taking (PT) abilities in a group of incarcerated adolescents (IA) and a group of gender- and age-matched community adolescents (CA). We sought to overcome some of the methodological limitations of previous studies. More specifically, we used an ER task with high ecological validity, which presented an extended range of emotions portrayed by dynamic multimodal stimuli (video clips). In addition, to investigate PT, we employed a task that is sensitive to the development of PT abilities during adolescence and adulthood. We also aimed to explore how ER and PT capacities are related to each other, as well as to the different dimensions of psychopathy. The results indicate that, relative to the CA group, the IA group presented impairments in ER, specifically, the recognition of anxiety, amusement, and interest. In addition, the IA group showed lower accuracy (ACC) in both the Director and the No-Director conditions of the Director task. These results indicate that the apparent impairments in the recognition of interest in the IA group were positively correlated with the impairments in PT revealed by the Director task. Contrary to our expectations, no association was observed between the dimensions of psychopathy and the ER or the PT abilities.

Written informed consent was obtained from all the participants and, for participants under 18 years old, also from their parents. The protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Geneva Medical School.