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Facial Emotion Recognition Deficits following Moderate–Severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Re-examining the Valence Effect and the Role of Emotion Intensity

  • Hannah Rosenberg (a1), Skye McDonald (a1), Marie Dethier (a2), Roy P.C. Kessels (a3) (a4) (a5) and R. Frederick Westbrook (a1)...


Many individuals who sustain moderate–severe traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are poor at recognizing emotional expressions, with a greater impairment in recognizing negative (e.g., fear, disgust, sadness, and anger) than positive emotions (e.g., happiness and surprise). It has been questioned whether this “valence effect” might be an artifact of the wide use of static facial emotion stimuli (usually full-blown expressions) which differ in difficulty rather than a real consequence of brain impairment. This study aimed to investigate the valence effect in TBI, while examining emotion recognition across different intensities (low, medium, and high).

Method: Twenty-seven individuals with TBI and 28 matched control participants were tested on the Emotion Recognition Task (ERT). The TBI group was more impaired in overall emotion recognition, and less accurate recognizing negative emotions. However, examining the performance across the different intensities indicated that this difference was driven by some emotions (e.g., happiness) being much easier to recognize than others (e.g., fear and surprise). Our findings indicate that individuals with TBI have an overall deficit in facial emotion recognition, and that both people with TBI and control participants found some emotions more difficult than others. These results suggest that conventional measures of facial affect recognition that do not examine variance in the difficulty of emotions may produce erroneous conclusions about differential impairment. They also cast doubt on the notion that dissociable neural pathways underlie the recognition of positive and negative emotions, which are differentially affected by TBI and potentially other neurological or psychiatric disorders. (JINS, 2014, 20, 1–10)


Corresponding author

Correspondence and reprint requests to: Hannah Rosenberg, University of New South Wales, School of Psychology, Mathews Building, Sydney NSW 2052 Australia. E-mail:


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