Fear Face: New Study Finds Organized Crime Members Excel at Detecting Fear

New study by University of Pavia reveals that organized crime members excel at identifying fearful facial expressions.

A new study reveals that organized crime members have a nose for fear, or at least a keen eye for fearful facial expressions.

New research from Italy’s University of Pavia has found that members of organized crime groups have a heightened ability to recognize fear in others.

The study, published on February 1 in the journal Cognition and Emotion, suggests that emotion recognition abilities may be strategically used by organized crime members to achieve their illicit goals.

It also provides new insight into the emotional skills necessary for those in organized crime to exert control and maintain power over their territories and peers.

Testing the fear face behind bars

The study was conducted in two Italian penitentiaries.

The participants were all men, native or highly proficient Italian speakers, who had no history of neurological or psychiatric disorders.

The 100 prisoners in the study were divided into two groups: one group of 50 organized crime offenders, and another group of 50 non-organized crime offenders.

A control group of 50 non-offenders was also included.

Informed consent was obtained from all participants, and they were assessed for cognitive functioning, reasoning ability, anxiety, depression, and psychopathic traits.

The Emotion Recognition Task (ERT) was used to assess the participants’ ability to recognize facial expressions of emotion.

This task consists of a series of images of faces displaying different emotions, and the participants are asked to identify the emotion being expressed.

The emotions tested include fear, happiness, and disgust.


The results showed that organized crime offenders were better able to recognize fearful facial expressions than non-organized crime offenders and non-offenders.

How much better? For every one-unit increase in fear recognition scores, the odds of belonging to the OC group increased by a factor of five.

The study also found that the results were not influenced by anxiety, depression, or psychopathic traits.

Why are organized crime members better at recognizing a fearful face?

The researchers suggest that OC members may need particular emotional competencies to exert power over targeted individuals to control territories and gain respect in their group.

For example, OC members may use their heightened ability to recognize fearful facial expressions to intimidate others via the actual or potential use of threats and violence.

This, in turn, may allow them to gain respect and establish hierarchies of power within the OC group.

Limitations and future directions

This study has some limitations.

For example, the results may not be generalizable to other OC groups, as there are different types of mafias in the world, such as the Chinese and Russian mafias and the Mexican cartel, whose internal cultures and social organizations differ from one another.

Likewise, the study did not assess the ability to recognize other emotions, such as happiness and disgust, which could also be important for social interactions.

This study adds to the growing body of research on the emotional intelligence of criminals, and offers a glimpse into the skills that may be used by organized crime members to achieve their goals.

So, the next time you come face-to-face with a member of the mafia, beware: they might just be reading your emotions like a crime novel.

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