How do you create an evil character? Too often I see in writing, movies, or TV that evil characters feed off their victims’ emotions. Science, however, is telling us that truly evil characters (sociopaths/psychopaths) really don’t recognize emotions on the faces of others, at least when they are children.

Healthy people notice a fearful face faster than they notice a neutral or happy face, but this was not the case in children who scored high on callous unemotionality. In fact, the higher the score, the slower they were to react to a fearful face.

The important point here, Sylvers says, is that the children’s reaction to the face was unconscious. Healthy people are “reacting to a threat even though they’re not aware of it.” That suggests that teaching children to pay attention to faces won’t help solve the underlying problems of psychopathy, because the difference happens before attention comes into play. “I think it’s just going to take a lot more research to figure out what you can do — whether it’s parenting, psychological interventions, or pharmacological therapy. At this point, we just don’t know,” Sylvers says.


The researchers also found that children in the study tended to respond more slowly to faces showing disgust, another threatening emotion — in this case, one that suggests something is toxic or otherwise wrong. Sylvers says psychological scientists should consider that psychopathy may not be related just to fearlessness, but to a more general problem with processing threats. –Science Daily

Writing Prompt: Write a character sketch for an evil character paying attention to the character’s response to others’ emotions over his or her development from childhood on.

Journaling Prompt: Have you ever misread someone? Write about the experience of missing the emotional cues.

Art Prompt: Fear

Nonfiction / Speechwriting Prompt: Give your audience some tips for reading facial expressions.

Photo Credit: Shandi-lee on Flickr

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