Tracey Woolrych of Murdoch’s School of Law said anecdotal evidence from her ongoing study suggests some people have blank spots for reading certain emotions.
“We assume people read emotional cues in the same way, but that’s not the case. My research suggests certain individuals misinterpret more subtle body language and facial expressions. They can’t see degrees of fear or sadness,” Ms Woolrych said.
“This can of course lead to major problems, because when people are unsure of what another person is expressing, they go to their emotional default.
“For some people, this is a hostile bias, where instead of reading fear, they see aggression and get angry. We encounter this in situations where people keep hitting and don’t stop, or where a situation escalates for no apparent reason.”
Ms Woolrych said the focus of previous studies had been too narrow, reducing real-world value.
“Researchers have used only a few options – a few faces – and have focussed on strong expressions. Very little has been done on the subtle nuances of expressions, which is where most problems of interpretation lay,” Ms Woolrych said.
“Photos in past studies have tended to be head and shoulder shots, but that’s not how we interpret others in a social setting. We need full body interpretation.”
Ms Woolrych said her goal was to create an instrument that could be used in the rehabilitation of violent offenders.
“Over the past 20 years, there has been a focus on giving violent offenders empathy training, but the root of empathy is understanding how people are feeling and responding accordingly,” she said.
“If you don’t have that ability, there’s no point in learning about the concept of empathy.”
Ms Woolrych is currently looking for 120-150 members of the general public to take part in a 15 minute survey. Participants can win one of three $50 gift vouchers.
To take part, email here.