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Recognizing emotion gets harder or easier depending on your mood

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

People who have a biased way of perceiving the world are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing extreme mood states. If you perceive the world to be a threatening place, well then, anxiety is a perfectly rational response to that threat. Likewise, if you perceive the world to be harsh and pointless, depression is a reasonable response to that as well. These observations are the foundation of cognitive behavior therapy which teaches that 1) extreme, uncomfortable mood states are the products of biased and irrational and/or erroneous thinking, and that 2) if you can help people to correct their thinking errors and biases, you correspondingly help them improve their moods. The cognitive therapy approach works; there is a lot of data to support the use of cognitive techniques as an efficient and safe way to treat depression and anxiety; so it is hard to argue with this cognitive model.

The typical cognitive therapist will teach clients about cognitive biases and errors as thought they were exclusively verbal things that can be written down on a piece of paper. This view is not wrong, but it fails to capture the diversity of cognitive biases that exist. For instance, did you know that depressed and anxious people even interpret people’s faces differently than non-depressed and non-anxious people? It’s true (see below for detail). What this means is that a large aspect of cognitive biases are non-verbal. Therapists don’t focus on these non-verbal biases too much, because they are harder to get a handle on and do anything with, therapeutically.

A wonderful example of non-verbal cognitive biases present in depression and anxiety is given in a new research paper recently published by Jutta Joormann and Ian Gotlib, both of Stanford University, in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, titled, “Is this happiness I see? Biases in the identification of emotional facial expressions in depression and social phobia” (November 2006 Vol. 115, No. 4, 705-714). As per usual, the material is copywritten and I cannot link you directly to the paper. However, the basics of this research are as given below in this method overview quote excerpted from the text:

“Individuals diagnosed with MDD or SP and never-disordered control participants watched movies of computer-morphed faces that changed slowly from a neutral to a fully emotional expression. The movies were composed of sequences of 70 photographs of the same face that expressed gradually increasing degrees of anger, sadness, fear, and happiness. Participants were asked to press a key as soon as they detected an emotional expression that they could identify. Pressing the key stopped the movie and opened a rating screen that asked participants to identify the face as expressing happiness, sadness, fear, or anger. The computer recorded the identification rating and the emotional intensity of the face that was displayed at the moment of the key press.”

So – in other words, the time it took for each study participant to recognize the emotion being shown in each emotion movie was recorded.

The results of this work showed that depressed people took longer on average than the other groups to correctly identify happy facial features, and shorter on average to identify sad facial features than the other groups. Similarly, the anxious group took less time on average to identify the angry faces than the other two groups. Since time in this case corresponds directly to degree of intensity of facial expression, taking longer is the same thing as requiring a stronger, more obvious display of emotion, while taking less time means that more subtle facial emotional displays are being detected.

In other words, depressed people are actually better at detecting sadness than other non-depressed people, and worse at detecting happiness. Anxious people are actually better (more sensitive) at detecting anger.

Good research usually creates more questions than it answers, and I think this is good research. Here are some of my questions.

  • What is the causal relationship between verbal and non-verbal forms of cognitive bias? In other words, does learning to think in a distorted or dysfunctional manner lead people to start perceiving the word in a dysfunctional manner, or is it perhaps the other way around, where people somehow first learn to perceive the word in a biased manner (say, by learning to focus in on one sort of emotion and ignore other emotions that may be present as well), and then this set of perceptions leads them to develop their biased way of thinking about things.
  • Could a non-verbal form of cognitive behavioral therapy be created? A form of therapy that would teach people to recognize the biased way they interpret emotions and help them correct those biases without doing a lot of verbal thinking about stuff? For instance, could those movies that Drs. Joormann and Gotlib used in their studies be adapted in some fashion to help depressed people learn how to identify happiness faster? If this learning were to occur, would that possibly be helpful for those depressive persons, or would you just have a depressed person who had a talent for recognizing happiness in faces?

Interesting stuff I think. What are your thoughts?

Keep Reading By Author Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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