Scientists believe that a simple two-hour emotional awareness course aimed at making young offenders less aggressive could hold the key to significantly reducing the seriousness of their future crimes.
In the first ever study of its kind, psychologists from Cardiff University recorded a 44% drop in the severity of crimes committed by persistent reoffenders, six months following the completion of a course designed to improve their ability to recognise other people’s emotions. The findings are published today in PLOS ONE journal.
Much has been published previously to suggest that adolescents who display antisocial behaviour have problems in facial emotional recognition, particularly fear and sadness.
By heightening their ability to perceive these emotions, researchers believe they can instil in young offenders a stronger sense of empathy for potential victims, and consequently a reduction in physical aggression and instances of severe crime.
To explore this idea, they studied the emotion recognition capabilities and criminal activity of 50 juvenile offenders (with an average age of 16) from the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan Youth Offending Services (YOS).
While all the participants of the study received their statutory intervention – involving contact with a caseworker, as ordered by the courts – a sub-group of 24 offenders also took part the research team’s facial affect training, aimed at improving their emotion recognition capabilities and normally used to rehabilitate patients with brain-damage.
Offenders in the sub-group and those only receiving statutory intervention were matched for age, socioeconomic status, IQ and criminal history. During the study, each group was tested twice for emotion recognition performance, and recent crime data was collected six months after testing had been completed.
Lead author Professor Stephanie Van Goozen, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said:
“Poor emotion recognition in children and adolescents can cause antisocial behaviour. Our study shows that this recognition can be corrected using an approach that is both cost-effective and relatively quick.
“Our findings support our belief that a population of individuals, whose combined offending produces the majority of harm in communities, can be made to behave less aggressively with the knock-on effect of bringing about a significant drop in serious crime.
“We would like to extend this research to younger age groups, particularly to children who are at risk of developing antisocial behaviour later in life that could result in violence, substance abuse, health problems and psychiatric illness.
“Emotion recognition training could set children on a much more positive path in life – one which doesn’t have to involve serious crime or violence against others, to the benefit of society* and themselves.”