Associations between childhood trauma and emotion recognition

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In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers evaluated the associations of childhood trauma with emotion recognition accuracy (ERA).

Study: The association between childhood trauma and emotion recognition is reduced or eliminated when controlling for alexithymia and psychopathy traits. Image Credit: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.comStudy: The association between childhood trauma and emotion recognition is reduced or eliminated when controlling for alexithymia and psychopathy traits. Image Credit: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.com

Background

Emotion recognition is crucial in daily interactions and relationships. Expressing emotions forms the core of social interactions, facilitating appropriate responses in social situations.

Accurate recognition of emotions is advantageous, and people with greater accuracy are more likable. Further, the classification and perception of emotional expressions can influence behavior.

Therefore, accurate recognition of emotions is pivotal, as misclassifications may result in inappropriate responses. Experiences of childhood trauma are linked to poor emotion recognition. Nevertheless, the breadth of these effects and their relationship with individual differences remain unclear.

About the study

In the present study, researchers explored the effects of childhood trauma on the ERA and whether they vary by emotion, intensity of stimuli, or modality (audiovisual, face, or voice).

Participants aged 18 or older, with normal or corrected-to-normal vision and without significant hearing loss, were recruited from an online site and an undergraduate course. Experimental task variables included emotion, modality, and intensity level.

Variables of individual differences were childhood trauma, psychopathy, and alexithymia. Participants completed the 28-item childhood trauma questionnaire short-form (CTQ-SF), 29-item self-reported psychopathy scale short-form (SRP-SF), and 20-item Toronto alexithymia questionnaire (TAS-20). Total scores from these questionnaires were standardized and used for analyses.

For emotional tasks, stimuli were selected from a database containing clips of actors expressing six emotions (happy, angry, sad, surprise, disgust, and fear) and a neutral condition across three modalities (audiovisual, face, and voice).

Emotional stimuli were presented at normal or strong intensity. A silent video of actors expressing a neutral or emotional expression was presented in the face modality.

Participants listened to an audio clip in the voice condition, while in the audiovisual condition, a clip with both video and audio was presented. They specified the emotion expressed in the clips.

The experiment was run online in four blocks – 1) personality questionnaire, 2) TAS-20 and face task, 3) SRP-SF and voice task, and 4) CTQ-SF and audiovisual task.

The effect of childhood trauma alone on ERA was examined using generalized mixed models and additionally controlled for psychopathy and alexithymia.

Results

The analytic sample comprised 122 participants. In the model with childhood trauma and modality as fixed factors, there was a significant main effect of childhood trauma and modality. However, the effect size was small. The team found that higher childhood trauma was associated with poorer ERA.

Accuracy was significantly better for audiovisual emotions than vocal and facial emotions.

However, childhood trauma was no longer significant when controlled for psychopathy and alexithymia, albeit modality remained significant.

There was no significant interaction between childhood trauma and modality, suggesting the effects of trauma were not significantly different across modalities. Further, a significant main effect of childhood trauma and emotion portrayed was evident in the model with these as fixed factors.

The accuracy was significantly different between fear and neutral expressions; expressions of fear had significantly poorer accuracy. Notably, childhood trauma remained significant after controlling for psychopathy and alexithymia, with a significant main effect of emotion portrayed.

No significant interaction was observed between childhood trauma and the emotion portrayed, suggesting no variations in the effect of trauma across emotions.

In the model with childhood trauma and stimulus intensity as fixed factors, there was a significant main effect of childhood trauma only. Greater childhood trauma was associated with poorer ERA. Notably, ERA was comparable for stimuli with normal and strong intensity.

Childhood trauma was no longer significant after controlling for psychopathy and alexithymia, but alexithymia was significant. Consistently, the effect of childhood trauma was not different by the intensity of stimuli.

Conclusions

In sum, the researchers investigated the associations between childhood trauma and ERA with multiple modalities and varying stimuli intensities.

Childhood trauma alone was significantly associated with ERA when exploring stimuli intensity, modality, and emotion. Further, when controlling for psychopathy and alexithymia, childhood trauma was significant only when exploring the emotion portrayed.

Notably, the effect sizes were small overall. Together, the findings suggest the significance of controlling for interrelated individual differences.

Journal reference:
Tarun Sai Lomte

Written by

Tarun Sai Lomte

Tarun is a writer based in Hyderabad, India. He has a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Hyderabad and is enthusiastic about scientific research. He enjoys reading research papers and literature reviews and is passionate about writing.

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