I See Violent People

New research shows aggressive people can become less aggressive if they change the way they see others. Eliza Shapiro on the power of happiness.

What if we could stop aggressive behavior with a smile?

Researchers at the University of Bristol found that people prone to violence tend to view those around them as angry, too—thus provoking more violence. But the vicious cycle can potentially be broken if the first group is able to see happiness in others’ expressions.

The study looked at two groups of adolescents, one comprised of 40 healthy teenagers, and the other, of 46 teens at risk for criminal behavior. Those in the high-risk group had all been referred to youth programs by courts or schools.

The two groups were shown a series of faces and asked to describe each one as happy or angry. Then the researchers told both groups that the faces they had identified as angry were actually happy. Incredibly, teens in both groups started to see happiness in faces they previously perceived as angry. Both groups reported lower levels of aggression after the study; the high-risk group had fewer incidences of aggressive behavior in the two weeks following the study.

Researchers say the results could have significant implications. "Our results provide strong evidence that emotion processing plays a causal role in anger and the maintenance of aggressive behavior,” said Professor Marcus Munafo, one of the study’s leaders. “This could potentially lead to novel behavioral treatments in the future."