A MURDOCH University researcher is one step closer to developing a violent offender rehabilitation tool after observing that some people may have a ‘blind spot’ against identifying emotions in others.
Tracey Woolrych of Murdoch’s School of Law is testing how people identify subtle and intense expressions of emotions in others as part of her PhD to develop a tool to identify emotional identification deficits in violent offenders.
During the qualitative stage of her research, Ms Woolrych observed that a number of subjects had blind spots to a particular emotion.
"It was a small sample but I noticed a number of people had one emotion they had difficulty recognising.
"Blind spots tended to be for negative emotions – sadness, disgust and fear."
Many psychologists believe a lack of empathy is connected to violent tendencies. Ms Woolrych agrees but her hypothesis is that the problem lies in correctly identifying the emotions that tend to lead to empathy.
"Empathy is a three pronged beast. There’s the tendency to empathise which is dispositional empathy, the accuracy of empathy and the appropriateness of response.
"There have been a lot of studies on empathy disposition – how often people feel empathy – but I’m looking at empathy accuracy.
"People with emotional identification deficits misinterpret a particular emotion for a different one, which is an attribution bias.
"The most common attribution bias is hostile attribution bias, where people interpret emotions such as fear as aggression."
Ms Woolrych is developing a photoset of images of three men and three women showing varying degrees of emotional expression which participants are asked to identify.
"Previous research has often only used heads and shoulders rather than whole bodies and the faces are often quite expressive.
"Not everyone is able to express their emotions as well as everyone else so I’m using some more subtle expressions."
Ms Woolrych has tested head and shoulder shots against full body shots. Her next step is to manipulate the background images to show people in a variety of social contexts.
"I’d really like to expand the repertoire of the photos and their use.
"The people in the current photos are all Caucasian adults so I’d like to address the racial bias by having people of different racial backgrounds.
"I’d also like to include children and expand the tool for use with paedophiles."
Ms Woolrych hopes her tool will be paired with a dispositional empathy scale to individually tailor offender rehabilitation programs.