When interacting with other people, both children's biological predispositions and past experiences play a role in how they will process and respond to social–emotional cues. Children may partly differ in their reactions to such cues because they differ in the threshold for perceiving such cues in general. Theoretically, perceptual sensitivity (i.e., the amount of detection of slight, low-intensity stimuli from the external environment independent of visual and auditory ability) might, therefore, provide us with specific information on individual differences in susceptibility to the environment. However, the temperament trait of perceptual sensitivity is highly understudied. In an experiment, we tested whether school-aged children's (N = 521, 52.5% boys, Mage = 9.72 years, SD = 1.51) motor (facial electromyography) and affective (self-report) reactivities to dynamic facial expressions and vocalizations is predicted by their (parent-reported) perceptual sensitivity. Our results indicate that children's perceptual sensitivity predicts their motor reactivity to both happy and angry expressions and vocalizations. In addition, perceptual sensitivity interacted with positive (but not negative) parenting behavior in predicting children's motor reactivity to these emotions. Our findings suggest that perceptual sensitivity might indeed provide us with information on individual differences in reactivity to social–emotional cues, both alone and in interaction with parenting behavior. Because perceptual sensitivity focuses specifically on whether children perceive cues from their environment, and not on whether these cues cause arousal and/or whether children are able to regulate this arousal, it should be considered that perceptual sensitivity lies at the root of such individual differences.
Weeland, Joyce; Van den Akker, Alithe; Slagt, Meike; and Putnam, Samuel, "Perception is key? Does perceptual sensitivity and parenting behavior predict children's reactivity to others’ emotions?" (2017). Psychology Faculty Publications. 7.