What is Affective Flattening?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Affective flattening describes a lack of emotional reactions.
Affective flattening describes a lack of emotional reactions.

Affective flattening, sometimes called blunted or flat affect, is a psychological symptom characterized by diminished or absent emotional reactions. It is associated with a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia. Affect is the psychological term for the outward display of emotion, such as through gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, laughter, and tears. Some affective flattening is normal, such as that which occurs as part of the maturation from childhood to adulthood. Different cultures have different standards of the appropriate intensity and manner of emotional display, so it is important to remain culturally sensitive when evaluating affective flattening.

Labile affect is characterized by uncontrollable or socially unacceptable laughter.
Labile affect is characterized by uncontrollable or socially unacceptable laughter.

While flat affect is often used to describe a more severely diminished emotional display than blunted affect, both symptoms are a type of affective flattening. Emotional displays and affective flattening can be conceived of as a continuum rather than a set of discrete symptoms, as the appropriate emotional displays vary among cultures, subcultures, and individuals. Evaluating the intensity of a display of emotion is also a subjective experience.

Constricted affect is commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia.
Constricted affect is commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia.

A less extreme version, in which the range of emotional display is mildly limited when compared to the social norm, is known as constricted or restricted affect. Also called alexythymia, constricted affect is considered a personality trait rather than a psychological disorder, though it is associated with psychiatric conditions including autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD), anorexia, and bulimia. Alexythymia is also a risk factor for a variety of psychiatric disorders.

Affective flattening might be caused by PTSD.
Affective flattening might be caused by PTSD.

In addition to affective flattening, abnormal affect may also manifest as incongruous or inappropriately exaggerated displays of emotion. Affect may be appropriately positive or negative, but inappropriate in intensity, such as breaking into tears because of a minor disappointment. Labile affect is characterized by uncontrollable and socially inappropriate laughter, smiling, or tears. It is common in sufferers of brain injury, dementia, and Lou Gehrig disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Labile affect may also be indicative of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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    • Affective flattening describes a lack of emotional reactions.
      Affective flattening describes a lack of emotional reactions.
    • Labile affect is characterized by uncontrollable or socially unacceptable laughter.
      Labile affect is characterized by uncontrollable or socially unacceptable laughter.
    • Constricted affect is commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia.
      Constricted affect is commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia.
    • Affective flattening might be caused by PTSD.
      Affective flattening might be caused by PTSD.
    • Childhood trauma may produce affective flattening in some individuals.
      Childhood trauma may produce affective flattening in some individuals.
    • People who are suffering from dementia often have affective flattening.
      People who are suffering from dementia often have affective flattening.