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Keywords:

  • Emotion recognition;
  • conduct disorder;
  • antisocial behaviour;
  • psychopathy

Background:  We examined whether conduct disorder (CD) is associated with deficits in facial expression recognition and, if so, whether these deficits are specific to the early-onset form of CD, which emerges in childhood. The findings could potentially inform the developmental taxonomic theory of antisocial behaviour, which suggests that early-onset and adolescence-limited forms of CD are subject to different aetiological processes.

Method:  Male adolescents with either early-onset CD (n = 42) or adolescence-onset CD (n = 39), and controls with no history of serious antisocial behaviour and no current psychiatric disorder (n = 40) completed tests of facial expression and facial identity recognition. Dependent measures were: (a) correct recognition of facial expressions of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, and (b) the number of correct matches of unfamiliar faces.

Results:  Relative to controls, recognition of anger, disgust, and happiness in facial expressions was disproportionately impaired in participants with early-onset CD, whereas recognition of fear was impaired in participants with adolescence-onset CD. Participants with CD who were high in psychopathic traits showed impaired fear, sadness, and surprise recognition relative to those low in psychopathic traits. There were no group differences in facial identity recognition.

Conclusions:  Both CD subtypes were associated with impairments in facial recognition, although these were more marked in the early-onset subgroup. Variation in psychopathic traits appeared to exert an additional influence on the recognition of fear, sadness and surprise. Implications of these data for the developmental taxonomic theory of antisocial behaviour are discussed.