Affective abstraction predicts variation in alexithymia, depression, and autism spectrum quotient



Affective abstraction refers to the ability to conceptualize affective states in terms of category-level representations that generalize across specific situations (e.g., “fear” as evoked by heights, predators, and haunted houses). Here, we develop a novel task for assessing affective abstraction and test its relations with trait alexithymia, depression, and autism spectrum quotient. In a preregistered online study, participants completed a set of tasks in which they matched a cue image with one of two probe images based on similarity of affective experience. In a discrete emotion version of the task, the cue and target probe matched on a discrete emotion category while controlling for valence. In a valence version of the task, the cue and target probe matched on valence (i.e., pleasantness or unpleasantness). We further varied the degree of abstraction such that some judgments crossed semantic categories (e.g. a house cue with animal probes). Accuracy, as indexed by the proportion of choices that accorded with norms, predicted trait measures of alexithymia, depression, and autism quotient with medium-to-large effect sizes. The findings were robust to emotion and valence categories and content matching conditions. Constraints for generalization include that our sample was obtained from MTurk and included predominantly white American adults between the ages of 23-64. These results provide preliminary support for the notion that affective abstraction may reflect a transdiagnostic psychological process of broad relevance to individual differences in affective processing.

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