Perceiving the evil eye: Investigating hostile interpretation of ambiguous facial emotional expression in violent and non-violent offenders

Marcus Munafo, Ian Penton-Voak, NIKI Kuin, Erik Masthoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
361 Downloads (Pure)


Research into the causal and perpetuating factors influencing aggression has partly focused on the general tendency of aggression-prone individuals to infer hostile intent in others, even in ambiguous circumstances. This is referred to as the ‘hostile interpretation bias’. Whether this hostile interpretation bias also exists in basal information processing, such as perception of facial emotion, is not yet known, especially with respect to the perception of ambiguous expressions. In addition, little is known about how this potential bias in facial emotion perception is related to specific characteristics of aggression. In the present study, conducted in a penitentiary setting with detained male adults, we investigated if violent offenders (n = 71) show a stronger tendency to interpret ambiguous facial expressions on a computer task as angry rather than happy, compared to non-violent offenders (n = 14) and to a control group of healthy volunteers (n = 32). We also investigated if hostile perception of facial expressions is related to specific characteristics of aggression, such as proactive and reactive aggression. No clear statistical evidence was found that violent offenders perceived facial emotional expressions as more angry than non-violent offenders or healthy volunteers. A regression analysis in the violent offender group showed that only age and a self-report measure of hostility predicted outcome on the emotion perception task. Other traits, such as psychopathic traits, intelligence, attention and a tendency to jump to conclusions were not associated with interpretation of anger in facial emotional expressions. We discuss the possible impact of the study design and population studied on our results, as well as implications for future studies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS ONE
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2017

Structured keywords

  • Brain and Behaviour
  • Cognitive Science
  • Social Cognition
  • Tobacco and Alcohol

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