PhotoHave you ever had to take a test or sit in for an interview that you felt utterly unprepared for? That feeling may have been intensified by a friend or colleague who didn’t seem to be fazed by the task at all. So why do they seem to have such an easy time while you struggle to perform?

A recent study shows that childhood emotional experiences can play a major role in our ability to perform a given task. The researchers say that the relationships that we form with our primary caregivers heavily influences our ability to handle stress and regulate our emotions when we grow up.

Controlling emotions

Dr. Christine Heinisch, one of the authors of the study, says that the connections to our parents and guardians have a direct influence over how we develop socially. However, they also determine how we handle emotionally charged conditions.

A perfect example of this, she says, is how a person reacts when coming up to a traffic light. Under neutral circumstances, it is generally easy for a driver to look at the signal and follow its directions. However, under emotionally driven circumstances, the results can be a little different.

“Usually, people tend to make more errors, like stopping too late or even driving through when the traffic light is red. Sometimes they stop although the light is still green,” explained Heinisch.

Worse task performance

The significance of our emotional relationships with our caregivers is key to what psychologists call the attachment theory. It says, in part, that having an insecure childhood with weak emotional bonds can lead to a decreased ability to handle stress or perform well at a given task. It was with this premise in mind that Heinisch and her colleagues designed their study.

“We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task – and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience,” said Heinisch.

The researchers used participants who had a range of emotional experiences with their caregivers and asked them to identify a target letter among a series of flashing letters. The tests were administered under different emotional conditions to different groups of subjects. Some tests were designed to evoke a positive emotional state; others provoked either a neutral or negative emotional state.

Out of participants who took a test that was designed to provoke a negative emotional state, those who did not have an emotionally responsive caregiver did the worst. The researchers believe that this was the case because emotionally insecure individuals had to expend more cognitive resources to control their emotions, which led to fewer resources being available for the task at hand.

The full study has been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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