youths with depression

Youths with depression & the misattribution of facial emotional expressions

Dr Shelley Hyman

It is important in our everyday social lives that we are able to recognise facial emotions in order to initiate and respond to people we interact with appropriately. People with or at-risk of depression tend to be highly sensitive to emotional expressions and may at times misattribute an emotion with the wrong facial expressions, most especially for negative stimuli.

This concentration on negative stimuli could potentially and undesirably impact on our interpersonal interactions. Thus far, research has not explored this paradigm in children and adolescents with depression.

A study (Jenness, Hankin, Young, & Gibb, 2014) aimed to investigate whether such biases of emotional facial expressions were also prevalent among youth with depression.

Participants were girls and boys, with an age range of 7 to 16 years old, who had no history of depression, a previous history of depression or were currently diagnosed with depression.

The researchers confirmed the differing levels of depression in the children and adolescents, using a scale that looked at mood disorders and psychosis in school-aged children, and was completed by both the children themselves and their parents through an interview.

The interview was done following a morphed faces task in which stimuli were images of neutral facial expressions morphed with emotional (angry, happy and sad) facial expressions at 10% increments (e.g., 90% neutral, 10% happy; 80% neutral, 20% happy).

Participants looked at sets of male and female neutral and facial emotional expressions. Their sensitivity towards the stimuli was measured according to how accurate or inaccurate the participant responded at the different levels of low (10%-30%), medium (40%-60%) and high (70%-90%) morphed faces.

It was found that on average overall, the youth in all 3 groups were just as accurate as one another in identifying the appropriate emotional expression. They were able to highly accurately (80% accuracy) identify ‘happy’ when the morph levels were at least medium and ‘angry’ when morph levels were high.

However, accuracy rates for ‘sad’ were not as great and reached at most 65% accuracy despite higher levels of the emotion being morphed with lower levels of the neutral faces. The currently depressed youths tended to misattribute sad and happy faces as angry much more often than did the youths that were never depressed and have had a history of depression.

These results indicate that though currently depressed children and adolescents can be as accurate as currently non-depressed youths, they have the tendency to misattribute happy and sad facial expressions as angry when the situation is a bit more ambiguous.

This could be problematic in everyday social interactions if children and adolescents with depression mistakenly interpret neutral situations or just simply situations in which anger is not at all present as anger.

This phenomenon could perhaps explain the chronic nature of depression as youths misinterpret their situation as threatening when it really isn’t and thus with the aid of therapy, youths with depression can learn to reinterpret the emotion of the situation and the people they are interacting with more accuracy through the use of social cues.

However, since this was only a preliminary study with an imbalance of the number of youths in each of the groups: 200 were never depressed, 68 had a history of depression and 12 who were currently depressed, there needs to be future research replicating the study, with more balanced numbers of youths in the depressed sample to ascertain whether or not the effect is really occurring.

Julie Ta


  • Jenness, J. L., Hankin, B. L., Young, J. F., & Gibb, B. E. (2014). Misclassification and identification of emotional facial expressions in depressed youth: A preliminary study. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 0(0), 1-7.
Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.