Lower Sensitivity to Happy and Angry Facial Emotions in Young Adults with Psychiatric Problems


Many psychiatric problem domains have been associated with emotion-specific biases or general deficiencies in facial emotion identification. However, both within and between psychiatric problem domains, large variability exists in the types of emotion identification problems that were reported. Moreover, since the domain-specificity of the findings was often not addressed, it remains unclear whether patterns found for specific problem domains can be better explained by co-occurrence of other psychiatric problems or by more generic characteristics of psychopathology, for example, problem severity. In this study, we aimed to investigate associations between emotion identification biases and five psychiatric problem domains, and to determine the domain-specificity of these biases. Data were collected as part of the ‘No Fun No Glory’ study and involved 2,577 young adults. The study participants completed a dynamic facial emotion identification task involving happy, sad, angry, and fearful faces, and filled in the Adult Self-Report Questionnaire, of which we used the scales depressive problems, anxiety problems, avoidance problems, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) problems and antisocial problems. Our results suggest that participants with antisocial problems were significantly less sensitive to happy facial emotions, participants with ADHD problems were less sensitive to angry emotions, and participants with avoidance problems were less sensitive to both angry and happy emotions. These effects could not be fully explained by co-occurring psychiatric problems. Whereas this seems to indicate domain-specificity, inspection of the overall pattern of effect sizes regardless of statistical significance reveals generic patterns as well, in that for all psychiatric problem domains the effect sizes for happy and angry emotions were larger than the effect sizes for sad and fearful emotions. As happy and angry emotions are strongly associated with approach and avoidance mechanisms in social interaction, these mechanisms may hold the key to understanding the associations between facial emotion identification and a wide range of psychiatric problems.

Frontiers in Psychology