Facial emotion recognition in refugee children with a history of war trauma


Over 36 million children are currently displaced due to war, yet we know little about how these experiences of war and displacement affect their socioemotional development—notably how they perceive facial expressions. Across three different experiments, we investigated the effects of war trauma exposure on facial emotion recognition in Syrian refugee (n = 130, Mage = 9.3 years, 63 female) and Jordanian nonrefugee children (n = 148, Mage = 9.4 years, 66 female) living in Jordan (data collected 2019–2020). Children in the two groups differed in trauma exposure, but not on any of our measures of mental health. In Experiment 1, we measured children’s biases to perceive an emotion using morphed facial expressions and found no evidence that biases differed between refugees and nonrefugees. In Experiment 2, we adapted a novel perceptual scaling task that bypasses semantic knowledge, and again found no differences between the two group’s discrimination of facial expressions. Finally, in Experiment 3, we recorded children’s eye movements as they identified Middle Eastern actors’ facial expressions, and again found no differences between the groups in either their identification accuracies or scanning strategies. Taken together, our results suggest that exposure to war-related trauma and displacement during early development, when reported by the caregiver but not always recollected by the child, does not appear to alter emotion recognition of facial expressions.

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