Theory of mind performance in women with posttraumatic stress disorder related to childhood abuse

Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2014 Mar;129(3):193-201. doi: 10.1111/acps.12142. Epub 2013 May 10.


Objective: Key questions remain unaddressed concerning the nature of interpersonal functioning in trauma survivors, including the ability to understand and interpret other people's thoughts and feelings. Here, we investigate theory of mind (ToM) performance of women with PTSD related to childhood abuse in comparison to healthy controls.

Method: Participants completed two ToM tasks, the Interpersonal Perception Task-15 (IPT-15) and the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task - Revised (RMET).

Results: Relative to controls, women with a history of childhood trauma had difficulty recognizing familial relationships depicted in the IPT-15 (P = 0.005). No other category of the IPT-15 showed significant group differences. In addition, while healthy women displayed faster RMET reaction times to emotionally valenced mental states (positive: P = 0.003; negative: P = 0.016) compared with neutral mental states, the PTSD group showed similar reaction times across all valences. The presence of dissociative symptoms (e.g., disengagement, amnesia, identity dissociation) was strongly associated with hindered accuracy of complex mental state identification and altered perception of kinship interactions.

Conclusion: Women with PTSD stemming from childhood trauma show changes in ToM abilities particularly those often involved in the interpretation of family interactions. In addition, individuals with PTSD showed slower reaction times during the recognition of complex mental states from emotionally salient facial/eye expressions in comparison with healthy subjects.

Keywords: adult survivors of child abuse; posttraumatic; social perception; stress disorders; theory of mind.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Perception*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / etiology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*