Cross cultural Emotion Recognition in traumatized individuals across the life span 

Project 1 of Theme 4: Socio-emotional development across cultures

Project group

Monique Pfaltz (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Ulrich Schnyder (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Misari Oe (Kurume University Hospital, Japan)

Interested in joining? Please contact Monique Pfaltz:



The ability to recognize others’ emotional states is crucial for the development and maintenance of social relations. Emotion recognition (ER) is an ability developed in childhood through interacting with significant others. Growing up in abusive or neglecting environments can impact emotional learning and thus impair the ability to correctly identify other’s emotions. In fact, individuals with a history of child maltreatment do, e.g., seem to have difficulties interpreting other people’s emotional facial expressions. They also frequently misinterpret neutral facial expressions as negative and show abnormal Amygdala responses to these expressions.

Studies on emotional processing and ER to date, however, mainly used experimental paradigms, e.g. ER stimuli, that comprise pictures or videos of Caucasian faces. Also, they focus on individuals living in the U.S. or Europe. However, the way we process and respond to emotional signals depends on our cultural background and it thus seems important to assess whether previous findings generalize to individuals with various cultural backgrounds.


  1. To build up a broader network of researchers from various countries who will conduct experimental studies to broaden our understanding of trauma-induced, potentially culture-dependent alterations in the processing of facial expression, which may affect the quality of interpersonal relationships and thus mental and physical well-being.

  2. These researchers will assess how emotions expressed in the face (and potentially in other modalities like voice or body posture) are processed, interpreted and responded to by traumatized individuals across continents and cultures, with the long-term goal to develop interventions aimed at improving affected individuals’ interpersonal relationships.

  3. First steps will be to define common and country/culture-specific research questions, to get an overview of existing experimental paradigms and, where necessary, to adapt these paradigms in collaboration with basic emotion researchers, thereby building a bridge between basic and clinical research.


Children and adults with a history of child maltreatment shall be assessed, using experimental (emotion recognition, emotion induction and other) paradigms as well as psychophysiological approaches (e.g. facial EMG, electrocardiogram, electrodermal activity, recording of attentional patterns and eye movements by means of eye tracking).

Existing projects and collaborations

Monique Pfaltz (University of Zurich, Switzerland) and Misari Oe (Kurume University, Japan) currently examine whether in adult Japanese individuals, child maltreatment is related to impaired recognition of emotional and neutral facial expressions. They also assess whether child maltreatment affects the intensity of self-reported and physiological (electrodermal, facial EMG, electrocardiogram) responses to video clips inducing negative and positive emotional states in Swiss and Japanese individuals.


​Due to Covid-19 related restrictions, the data collection in Japan is currently on hold. Preliminary results from the Swiss sample suggest that individuals who suffered from child maltreatment have more difficulties in identifying positive facial expressions than individuals without such experiences. Furthermore, they tend to misinterpret neutral facial expressions as negative. These findings are in line with two previous studies conducted in our laboratory (Passardi et al. 2018; Pfaltz et al., 2019). In contrast, facial mimicry (i.e., the automatic imitation of others’ facial expressions) seems to be intact in adults with a history of child maltreatment (Passardi et al., 2019).


Passardi, S., Peyk, P., Rufer, M., Wingenbach, T. S., & Pfaltz, M. C. (2019). Facial mimicry, facial emotion recognition and alexithymia in post-traumatic stress disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 122, 103436.

Pfaltz, M. C., Passardi, S., Auschra, B., Fares-Otero, N. E., Schnyder, U., & Peyk, P. (2019). Are you angry at me? Negative interpretations of neutral facial expressions are linked to child maltreatment but not to posttraumatic stress disorder. European journal of psychotraumatology, 10(1),

Passardi, S., Peyk, P., Rufer, M., Plichta, M. M., Mueller-Pfeiffer, C., Wingenbach, T., Hassanpour, K., Schnyder, U., Pfaltz, M.C. (2018). Impaired Recognition of Positive Emotions in Individuals with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Cumulative Traumatic Exposure, and Dissociation. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 87(2), DOI: