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Does Empathy Link to Emotion Recognition?

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Although I teach psychology, I do enjoy reading about areas that I can support my dissertation students with during their research investigations. This year I have several students looking at personality, so before Christmas, I suggested a topic to a group of students that is a little bit different.

My students were very interested in looking at emotion recognition, a person’s ability to detect emotional expressions in faces. One of the most influential emotional expression researchers is Ekman who defined that people express six basic emotions – joy, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear, and anger.

Each emotion can be defined as having different facial features, for example, someone who has a surprised expression will have raised eyebrows, wide eyes and possibly an open mouth, and it’s these features that people use when they try and understand emotions in faces.

I gave my students one of my own emotion recognition papers, but in all honesty, the area has now been researched to the point of being a little bit obvious in the results. I asked my students to go and do some further reading, and I also said to the students that I would do the same.

While I fully understand the importance of a dissertation being an independent project for the student, I still like to keep up-to-date with a dissertation research area so that I can offer full support in the write-up and development process.

One of the concepts I came across which has been shown to link to emotion recognition is empathy, which one’s ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This has been a very influential concept in relation to emotion recognition and I’m very surprised that I had never come across this before.

When reading around the area, I found that empathy can link to emotion recognition in many ways, but in particular, in many real life contexts. For example, a therapist needs to be empathetic so that they can understand a client’s emotions and then ultimately help with emotional processes, but they also need to be able to read a client’s emotional expressions as clients can find it difficult to talk.

In cases such as this, we can call this more as cognitive empathy as this is empathy that is used in a given cognitive situation (such as changing though processes in therapy). Another real-life application could be that of young offenders.

I read a piece of research that suggests that young offenders can often lack empathy and social cognition skills and this lack of emotional engagement (and not being able to understand how someone would feel about being the recipient of a crime) can contribute to someone being directed towards offending.

Of course, there are other factors that can contribute to offending but I just thought that the research was interesting in relation to the area of emotion recognition and empathy – but maybe not suitable for a dissertation project due to ethical implications of the research area.

In contrast to this, there is also something called emotional empathy, and this is one concept that is often researched in individuals who have autism. Individuals with autism can have difficulties reading the emotions of others, but also difficulties in processing emotions in themselves.

This is different to a therapist situation as a therapist situation is learnt (and less natural) and the therapist is aware of their empathy process. In the case of a person with autism however, these processes are natural and often unconscious, so the person is not always aware of them.

So how can empathy link to emotion recognition abilities? Well this all is concerned with the links between feeling and expression emotions yourself and how well you can then detect other emotions. Research has shown that people who are more empathetic can detect emotions easier in faces.

The emotions of joy and sadness are the often the easiest emotions to detect. The research, however, is mixed so things such as different research methods and emotion recognition tasks used need to be considered too.

Often when a person is looking at an emotional expression, they are trying to figure out how someone is feeling, and to help with this, that person needs to try and relate to that emotional expression in some way. For example, a joyful expression may prompt someone to recall times when they themselves were joyful and how this time made them feel.

Whatever the links in the emotion recognition research suggest, for me, it’s always going to be an interesting area to work on. As well as looking at theoretical perspectives, this type of research can be applied to many contexts and it’s these contexts that I can now direct my future dissertation students to in their own investigations.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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