Training Troubled Youths to Recognise Expressions Can Reduce Crime

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Young boy criminal in a hoodie

New research suggests that training young offenders to interpret facial expressions can reduce their likelihood of engaging in violent crime.

A simple computer-based training model has proven to be a promising new method to manage antisocial behaviour amongst troubled teens.


Studies have demonstrated that both adult psychopaths and children who are diagnosed with “conduct disorder” struggle to recognise fear and other emotions in the faces of others.

Brain scans of these individuals show significantly reduced activity in the brain’s frontal lobe – specifically the middle and orbital frontal gyrus – as well as the amygdala. These parts of the brain are generally associated with emotional control, influencing the production of empathy, remorse and guilt, as well as regulating our impulses and judgment.

Stephenie van Goozen, a biological psychologist at Cardiff University, used a computer model originally designed to help people improve activity in these parts of the brain upon a group of young offenders to determine whether correcting anti-social brain imbalances could reduce their tendency toward anti-social conduct.


Ms Van Goozen and her colleagues set out to train half of a group of 50 male convicted offenders aged between 12 and 18 to recognise facial expressions of happiness, sadness, fear and anger.

Each participant completed between 7 and 9 hours of training over two to three sessions.

“Gradually you teach people to pay attention to the right signals in the face, such as the eyes and the mouth – the things that tell you how intensely people feel,” said van Goozen.

The researchers then compared rates of reoffending between the two groups of 25 boys.


The study found that the boys who received facial recognition training had significantly lower rates of recidivism than those who did not.

While the researchers admit the study is limited and a far bigger sample is needed, they suggest the preliminary findings suggest these forms of training may be a useful rehabilitation tool for those with developing brains.

They emphasised the cost-effectiveness of the training, which merely involves a computer and a person to monitor compliance.

Cost of crime

The total financial cost of crime in Australia is estimated to be $48 billion per year.

In terms of incarceration, the financial cost of keeping just one person behind bars is currently $109,500 per year.

According to a recent report titled Australia’s Criminal Justice Costs: An International Comparison, the cost of incarcerating a person in Australia is the fourth highest in the world, behind Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands.

The other countries, however, run facilities with comprehensive programs to treat the underlying causes of crime and equip inmates with new skills upon their release. As a result, they have far lower recidivism rates than in Australia each around the 30% mark.

Australia, on the other hands, places far less emphasis on rehabilitation, and currently has a recidivism rate of nearly 50%.

And even though crime rates have been dropping steadily since 2001 – and overall crime in NSW is at its lowest in 40 years – the imprisonment rate keeps increasing, and is at its highest of all time.

For many, programs which seek to address the causes of criminality and divert people away from the criminal justice system are a far more effective way of reducing recidivism – which is something that benefits the entire population.

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