Altruism: Can You Hear Her Scream?

The ability to recognize subtle signs of fear in a facial expression may facilitate altruism, according to new research in the journal Emotion. In one study, participants identified 24 expressions of fear, sadness, anger, happiness, disgust and surprise. Those better at recognizing fear—but not other expressions—later donated more money and time to help a (fictitious) college student who, they were told, had recently lost her parents in a car accident. In a second study, participants rated the attractiveness of strangers in photographs. Once again, those better at recognizing fear expressions were more considerate of others' feelings: they rated people as more attractive, but only when they were told that the individuals would learn their scores—and could therefore be hurt. "Not everyone is attuned to these cues," says study author Dr. Abigail Marsh of the National Institute of Mental Health. Psychopaths and criminals, for instance, may be less able to recognize fear in other people (including their victims). Marsh believes abnormalities in the brain's amygdala, which processes emotions, may explain the deficit. It may be, she says, that as children, these individuals can't read or interpret distress, making them less likely to develop empathy and guilt as adults—key emotions in the choice to hurt or help others.

—William Lee Adams