Specific Biases for Identifying Facial Expression of Emotion in Children and Adolescents With Conversion Disorders

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Abstract

Objective

This study aimed to assess how children and adolescents with conversion disorders identify universal facial expressions of emotion and to determine whether identification of emotion in faces relates to subjective emotional distress.

Methods

Fifty-seven participants (41 girls and 16 boys) aged 8.5 to 18 years with conversion disorders and 57 age- and sex-matched healthy controls completed a computerized task in which their accuracy and reaction times for identifying facial expressions were recorded. To isolate the effect of individual emotional expressions, participants’ reaction times for each emotion (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and happiness) were subtracted from their reaction times for the neutral control face. Participants also completed self-report measures of subjective emotional distress.

Results

Children/Adolescents with conversion disorders showed faster reaction times for identifying expressions of sadness (t(112) = −2.2, p = .03; 444 [609] versus 713 [695], p = .03) and slower reactions times for happy expressions (t(99.3) = 2.28, p ≤ .024; −33 [35] versus 174 [51], p = .024), compared with controls (F(33.75, 419.81) = 3.76, p < .001). There were no significant correlations (at the corrected p value of .01) between reaction times and subjective reports of perceived distress (r values ranged from 092 to 0.221; p > .018). There were also no differences in identification accuracy for any emotion (p > .82).

Conclusions

The observation of faster reaction times to sad faces in children and adolescents with conversion disorders suggests increased vigilance and motor readiness to emotional signals that are potential threats to self or to close others. These effects may occur before conscious processing.

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