The aim of this study is to examine emotional processing of infant displays in people with Eating Disorders (EDs).
Social and emotional factors are implicated as causal and maintaining factors in EDs. Difficulties in emotional regulation have been mainly studied in relation to adult interactions, with less interest given to interactions with infants.
A sample of 138 women were recruited, of which 49 suffered from Anorexia Nervosa (AN), 16 from Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and 73 were healthy controls (HCs). Attentional responses to happy and sad infant faces were tested with the visual probe detection task. Emotional identification of, and reactivity to, infant displays were measured using self-report measures. Facial expressions to video clips depicting sad, happy and frustrated infants were also recorded.
No significant differences between groups were observed in the attentional response to infant photographs. However, there was a trend for patients to disengage from happy faces. People with EDs also reported lower positive ratings of happy infant displays and greater subjective negative reactions to sad infants. Finally, patients showed a significantly lower production of facial expressions, especially in response to the happy infant video clip. Insecure attachment was negatively correlated with positive facial expressions displayed in response to the happy infant and positively correlated with the intensity of negative emotions experienced in response to the sad infant video clip.
People with EDs do not have marked abnormalities in their attentional processing of infant emotional faces. However, they do have a reduction in facial affect particularly in response to happy infants. Also, they report greater negative reactions to sadness, and rate positive emotions less intensively than HCs. This pattern of emotional responsivity suggests abnormalities in social reward sensitivity and might indicate new treatment targets.