Previous life experience can dramatically affect one persons interpretation of anothers emotional state, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because most people, regardless of their race, creed or language, can recognize the same basic human emotions, psychologists had thought that this ability was wholly innate. Now Seth Pollak of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues suggest that nurturing (or lack thereof) also contributes greatly to this skill.They report that young people who have been physically abused identify anger in facial expressions significantly more often than do children who have not been abused.

Using a computer program to morph peoples faces into a range of different expressions, the team created a series of pictures for each of four ranges of sentiments: happy to fearful, happy to sad, angry to fearful, and angry to sad (see image for a sampling). The group then randomly showed the children various pictures, some expressing a single emotion but the majority representing a combination of at least two different feelings. When asked which emotion the person in the picture was experiencing, all of the children identified happiness, sadness and fearfulness in similar ratios. Abused youngsters, however, recognized anger much more often than did their nonsuffering counterparts. "The abused children were more sensitive to anger," Pollak notes. "It may be the case that physically abused children develop a broader category of anger because it is adaptive for them to notice when adults are angry."

Research like this may help psychologists understand how to better assist abused children in overcoming emotional and social barriers. Says Pollak, "We are trying to add to the body of literature demonstrating the behavior problems observed in abused children." In time, these studies could lead to tailored interventions for such sad circumstances.