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The Ability of Mentally Retarded Adults to Judge Facial Expressions From Photographs (1983)

The Ability of Mentally Retarded Adults to Judge Facial Expressions From Photographs (1983)

©1983, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1983, 18 March). The ability of mentally retarded adults to judge facial expressions from photographs. Paper presented at the 16th Annual Gatlinburg Conference on Research in Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 18 March, 1983, Gatlinburg, TN.




The Ability of Mentally Retarded Adults to Judge Facial Expressions From Photographs

By Dallas Denny

Department of Psychology

Clover Bottom Developmental Center

Nashville, TN 37214


Sir Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, was the first researcher to systematically study the expression of the emotions in humans. After observing infants, the insane, the blind, people of various cultures, and animals, he concluded that facial expressions of emotion are the result of natural selection and are the same for all men. In the one hundred and fifteen years since the publication of his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, evidence has tended to support this conclusion.

A technique introduced by Darwin involved the judgement of facial expressions from photographs or drawings. A number of researchers have refined this method. For instance, Izard (1971) used triads of black-and-white photographs to do a cross-cultural analysis of the ability of children to recognize facial expressions. His results demonstrated a significant increase in the ability to recognize expressions with increased age.

The ability of mentally retarded persons to recognize facial expressions is not well known. In the present study, Izard’s technique was applied to a sample of institutionalized mentally retarded adults, with their responses compared to those of nonretarded adults to determine: 1) if the retarded can identity emotive facial expressions, and, 2) which expressions they can best recognize.

The 75 subjects tested were verbal, sensorially intact, mildly to profoundly retarded residents of a developmental center in Tennessee. They ranged in age from 17 to 77 years. Subjects were shown 8 independently-arranged triads consisting of Izard’s original photographs and asked to identify the keyed expressions of anger, distress, fear, interest, joy, and surprise. Each of the 6 expressions was keyed 4 times.

Statistical analysis of the results revealed that grouped subjects correctly identified more keyed expressions than would have occurred by chance (P < .05, two-tailed, chi-square goodness-of-fit test). When subjects were grouped by functioning level, analysis revealed that combined subjects in each group (mildly, moderately, severely, and profoundly retarded) were able to successfully identify the expressions joy and anger (p < .05, two-tailed, binomial test). The mildly retarded group also successfully identified the expressions fear, distress, and interest, and the moderately retarded group identified fear. A control group of nonretarded adults recognized each of the 6 expressions.

It was concluded that verbal, retarded adults can recognize some facial expressions, and that further investigation is needed.




Darwin, Charles. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray. Reprinted in 1965 by University of Chicago Press.

Izard, Carroll. (1971). The face of emotion. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.