Childhood Adversity Is Associated with Adult Theory of Mind and Social Affiliation, but Not Face Processing

PLoS One. 2015 Jun 12;10(6):e0129612. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0129612. eCollection 2015.


People vary substantially in their ability to acquire and maintain social ties. Here, we use a combined epidemiological and individual differences approach to understand the childhood roots of adult social cognitive functioning. We assessed exposure to 25 forms of traumatic childhood experiences in over 5000 adults, along with measures of face discrimination, face memory, theory of mind, social motivation, and social support. Retrospectively-reported experiences of parental maltreatment in childhood (particularly physical abuse) were the most broadly and robustly associated with adult variations in theory of mind, social motivation, and social support. Adult variations in face discrimination and face memory, on the other hand, were not significantly associated with exposure to childhood adversity. Our findings indicate domains of social cognition that may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of adverse childhood environments, and suggest mechanisms whereby environmental factors might influence the development of social abilities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Emotional Intelligence*
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Theory of Mind*