How trauma in early life can make it harder to recognise emotions in adulthood.

Is it childhood trauma experience itself that leads to difficulties recognising emotions, or an additional trait developed as a result of the trauma? The findings suggest childhood trauma may lead to difficulties recognising our own emotions (alexithymia), and in turn hinder our emotion recognition.
How trauma in early life can make it harder to recognise emotions in adulthood.

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Childhood trauma and recognising emotions.

Recognising people’s emotions is crucial for our social lives as it helps with establishing and maintaining connections, as well as acting appropriately. For example, if we are conversing with someone and they start expressing anger, showing their distaste for the current topic, if we cannot recognise their negative expression and adapt our behaviour to rectify this, then it is less likely that this connection will develop or continue. Typically, research in this domain uses static photographs of facial expressions. But, in everyday conversations we experience dynamic/moving expressions. So why aren’t emotions in research explored this way? We tried to rectify this and employ emotion stimuli that contained more information than a single snapshot of an expression (e.g., they are more realistic and better resemble everyday conversations). A common explanation as to why some individuals are better at recognising emotions compared to others is due to individual differences (e.g., an experience or trait which makes you different from someone else and in turn influences your abilities). A key individual difference previously shown to influence emotion recognition is traumatic experiences in childhood.

Childhood trauma is defined as abuse and/or neglect in early life and is sadly a prevalent issue in the UK, with 1 in 5 adults experiencing abuse before the age of 16 years old and 1 in 10 experiencing neglect. Research has suggested that experience of childhood trauma is linked to better recognition of negative emotions (e.g., anger and fear), as a safety behaviour to help predict the next onset of abuse. However, this also means that positive (e.g., happy) and neutral expressions are not recognised accurately, as they are misinterpreted as negative. So, if individuals experience trauma in their childhood it is likely that as adults they will struggle with accurate recognition of emotions.

It is also important to note that early traumatic experiences can result in individuals developing certain traits. For example, trauma in childhood can lead to overwhelming distress, and for individuals to cope, they develop strategies to avoid their emotions and focus more on external cues instead. This may lead to alexithymia traits developing, which are associated with difficulties describing and recognising your own emotions/feelings. Another example is due to lack of experience - a child in an abusive environment is less likely to experience or practice empathy, so they become less responsive to others’ needs, leading to callous-unemotional behaviour and a lack of empathy or remorse (e.g., typical psychopathy traits). Thus, individuals who experienced trauma in childhood are likely to also present higher levels of alexithymia (difficulty identifying/describing your own feelings) and psychopathy traits (callousness and lack of empathy). However, the related traits themselves are also associated with difficulties recognising emotions. So, if one individual experiences childhood trauma, as well as elevated levels of these traits, which all hinder emotion recognition, then which one is responsible for the emotion difficulties in adulthood?

This is the focus of the current research. We examined childhood trauma and emotion recognition, and whether the related traits (alexithymia and psychopathy) influenced this relationship. We showed 122 participants three different types of emotional expressions: a silent video (visual), a sentence spoken in an emotional way (audio), and a video showing both together (audio-visual). These clips varied in intensity (e.g., an average or an exaggerated expression), as well as the specific emotion expressed (happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and neutral). On each trial after watching or listening to the emotion, participants selected which emotion was depicted. They also completed questionnaires about their childhood (childhood trauma), their ability to recognise their own emotions/feelings (alexithymia), and their callousness or lack of empathy (psychopathy).

We examined whether the relationship between childhood trauma and the ability to recognise emotions changed across different situations, namely how the emotion was presented (modality: facial, vocal, and audio-visual expressions), how intense the expression was (intensity: average or exaggerated), and the specific emotion (happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and neutral). We explored childhood trauma by itself, and when including the related traits, to see how alexithymia and psychopathy traits impacted the relationship.

Childhood trauma led to difficulties recognising emotions.

When we explored just childhood trauma’s influence on recognising emotions, we found that individuals reporting more experience of childhood trauma were less accurate at recognising emotions. The emotion difficulties associated with childhood trauma experience were consistent across various situations. Specifically, the relationship was similar across the way the emotions were presented (facial, vocal, audio-visual expressions), the intensity of the emotions (average, exaggerated), and the specific emotion expressed (happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and neutral). This suggests that, while the ability to recognise emotions is reduced in individuals with experience of childhood trauma, performance is not further impaired based on how, or what, emotions are expressed.

Childhood trauma’s influence on recognising emotions was dependent on the related traits.

We wanted to explore whether the relationship between childhood trauma experience and poorer emotion recognition was influenced by the related traits of difficulties recognising your own emotions (alexithymia) and callous-unemotional traits (psychopathy). After including these traits in the analysis, the relationship changed – childhood trauma experience was not as strongly linked to difficulties recognising emotions. The findings suggest that, when included with childhood trauma, alexithymia had a large influence on the relationship. This suggests that the difficulties previously reported are potentially not only due directly to the trauma experience. The current research highlights the importance of future childhood trauma research including additional traits that may better explain emotion recognition difficulties, such as alexithymia.


To conclude, this study explored whether the relationship between childhood trauma and the ability to recognise emotions was influenced by (1) the related traits of alexithymia and psychopathy, and (2) various situations regarding how emotions were expressed (facial, vocal, or audio-visual expressions at average or exaggerated intensity) and what emotions were expressed (happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust, surprise, and neutral). We originally found that childhood trauma experience led to poorer recognition of emotions – and this was consistent across all situations. However, after we considered the related traits (alexithymia and psychopathy) we found that these difficulties were not as strongly linked to childhood trauma experience, with the relationship being largely influenced by alexithymia. This highlights the importance of including related traits. It suggests that current models or theories exploring childhood trauma experience and emotion difficulties may need to consider elevated levels of certain traits in these individuals.

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Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Cognitive Psychology > Emotion
Personality and Differential Psychology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Personality and Differential Psychology

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