Psychotherapist’s ability for facial emotion recognition

45th SPR (Society for Psychotherapy research) International Annual Meeting, Copenhagen, June 2014

Does psychotherapist’s ability for recognition off emotional facial expressions make a difference for their patients?

Irena Makower, Stephan Hau, Lennart Högman, Håkan Fischer

Therapist Factors
Submission Type: Brief Paper

Abstract: Psychotherapist’s ability for facial emotion recognition is related to CBT treatment outcomes. Irena Makower, Stephan Hau, Lennart Högman, Håkan Fischer

The ability for facial emotion recognition which is also called behavioral empathy is a part of the so called “common factors”, important in all psychological therapies. Our general hypothesis was that the ability to recognize emotional facial expressions would be related to the dispositional empathy and psychotherapist understanding of the patient’s emotional signals in the therapy situation. This should lead to better treatment outcomes and more satisfied patients. An initial study was done on 31 CBT therapists who treated two patients each during the course of CBT therapist training. Ekman’s computerized program Micro Expression Training Tool (Mett, 2003) was used to evaluate accuracy in recognition of seven basic facial expressions. The faces were exposed for 200 milliseconds each. There was a positive relationship between general ability for facial emotion recognition and other oriented dispositional empathy. Also a significant positive relationship was detected between the general ability for facial emotion recognition and therapy outcome in terms of patients self-esteem, one of most important psychological resources. The ability for fear recognition among therapists was related to significant better therapy outcome and decrease of symptoms. Interestingly, ability for recognition of sadness in faces among psychotherapists was related positively to experienced satisfaction with therapy among their patients but negatively to some of therapy outcome. It seems that recognition of different emotions by a psychotherapist in a psychotherapy situation may play different function for outcome. Recognition of anxiety in faces seems to play an important role for therapy outcome. As it is known recognition of facial expression of anxiety is related to threat processing and patients with amygdala damage have problems with recognition of anxious expressions in faces. Recognition of sad expressions in faces by psychotherapists seems not always favorable for therapy outcomes but gives more satisfied patients. Recognition of sad faces was previously found to be related to sensitivity to approval related social cues and has been linked to the inhibition of aggression and the elicitation of prosocial behavior.

More research is needed to confirm and understand the results.