Unconscious fear of intimacy linked to early parental loss

May 22, 1997

Unconscious fear of intimacy linked to early parental loss, U-M study shows, using subliminal perception.

ANN ARBOR—People who have suffered an emotional loss or trauma may be less happy than others but not know it, with an unconscious fear of intimate relationships and positive moods secretly sabotaging their chances for happiness in life.

That is one of the implications of a University of Michigan study to be presented May 25 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Washington, D.C. The study is part of a symposium exploring unconscious emotions and motivations, chaired by U-M psychologist Howard Shevrin.

Conducted by researcher Scott Bunce, the study uses subliminal perception to investigate the existence of unconscious emotions. When exposed to words like “loving” and “excited,” flashed at speeds outside of conscious awareness, people who have lost their parents early in life have greater tension in the muscle that contracts the eyebrows into a frown than subjects who have not experienced an early loss.

“Previous research has demonstrated that traumatized individuals, including people with early parental loss, can have ambivalent or less satisfactory intimate relationships in adult life,” notes Bunce, a researcher at the U-M Hospitals. “This research suggests that people who suffer early parental loss are often unaware of having ambivalent or aversive reactions to what they themselves consider to be positive, intimate feelings.”

Bunce’s investigation, one of a growing number of sophisticated, experimental studies of the unconscious mind, was inspired by the findings of a previous study he conducted with U-M colleagues Randy Larsen and Christopher Peterson. In that study, the researchers asked subjects to report on their current moods twice a day for 28 days. Those who had experienced a wide range of emotional traumas, from the death of a parent or sibling to a rape or a serious auto accident, reported having fewer friends, spending less time socializing, more time alone, and, although they did not report more negative emotions, they did report less positive and intimate emotions than those who had not experienced an emotional trauma.

But when asked at the end of the study to judge their characteristic level of positive and negative emotion during the study, they overestimated the amount of positive emotion they had experienced.

For the current study, Bunce replicated the earlier mood diary findings, comparing the reports of 40 subjects who had lost their parents with those of 17 control subjects who had not. He then went one step further, using subliminal perception to show that subjects who had suffered an early loss had negative reactions to positive emotional words presented outside conscious awareness.

Using a tachistoscope, a device that flashes words or images at different speeds, Bunce and co-investigators Ed Bernat, a graduate student, and Shevrin, showed 14 of the subjects, half of whom had suffered early parental loss, a list of words drawn from the daily mood diaries (such as “elated,” “sad,” “anxious” and “calm”). First the words were flashed at a speed below the threshold of awareness—1/1000th of a second, then at a speed that allowed them to see the words.

While they looked through the tachistoscope, subjects wore electrodes to measure the brain?s response to the words, as well as the tension of the “frown” muscle, a reliable indicator of negative emotions.

When the words were presented in conscious awareness, the brain waves indicated that parental loss made no difference. All subjects responded more strongly to negative than to positive words. At subliminal levels, however, subjects with parental loss responded to the positive words with more frowning than they did to negative words, and with similar brain wave amplitudes. Subjects without a loss showed the same pattern as they had when the words were presented in conscious awareness, with stronger frown and brain wave responses to negative words.

According to Shevrin, who heads a research program on unconscious processes at the U-M Hunt Laboratory, the study by Bunce and others represent a veritable explosion of experimental studies of the unconscious. These include a study by U-M psychobiologist Kent Berridge showing that unconscious cravings determine the extent to which drug addicts will pursue their habit despite an absence of any emotional payoff in consciously experienced pleasure; and a study by U-M psychologist Michael Snodgrass providing experimental support for the psychoanalytic theory of defense.

“Psychology may once again be ready to incorporate a concept of the unconscious that has relevance to the deepest wellsprings of our emotions and motivations,” says Shevrin.

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