Doctoral Dissertation
University of Oregon


Defended & Completed May 2011
PhD granted 2012 after clinical internship

Advisor Freyd, Jennifer J.

Dissertation Abstract

Women and men who experience early interpersonal violence are at increased risk for subsequent victimization. Little is known about the mechanisms by which early trauma increases vulnerability for revictimization. According to Betrayal Trauma Theory, harm perpetrated by close others early in life may impair the ability to accurately decipher trust and identify betrayal, thus increasing risk for future violation. Dissociation, a state of cognitive, emotional, and experiential disconnectedness, is theorized to facilitate impaired betrayal awareness, and peritraumatic dissociation (i.e., dissociation at the time of a traumatic event) has been linked to revictimization.

The present study extended this existing knowledge and tested predictions made by Betrayal Trauma Theory through the examination of the impact of high betrayal trauma on self-report and behavioral trust tendencies and betrayal awareness in a college sample of 216 individuals with and without histories of trauma high in betrayal. The impact of peritraumatic dissociation on betrayal awareness was examined. Participants completed self-report measures of peritraumatic dissociation and relational and general trust. The Trust Game, an experimental economics task, was used to investigate behavioral trust. A picture drawn to depict sexual abuse of a child was used as a betrayal stimulus to examine betrayal awareness in the sample.

Results replicated prior work indicating an increased risk for revictimization among individuals who reported high betrayal trauma during childhood and/or adolescence. As predicted, high betrayal trauma exposure was associated with lower levels of self-reported general and relational trust. Self-reported general trust was positively correlated with behavior during the Trust Game. Participants with histories of high betrayal trauma reported higher levels of peritraumatic dissociation when confronted with the betrayal stimulus, and rates of peritraumatic dissociation contributed significantly to betrayal awareness.

The findings of this study suggest betrayal trauma early in life disrupts developing socio-emotional functions, namely the ability to judge trustworthiness. The results provide evidence for the role of peritraumatic dissociation in awareness for betrayal. Despite the preliminary nature of this work, the results represent an important step toward better understanding the long-term consequences of high betrayal trauma, suggesting ways interventions may be tailored to subvert the effects of trauma.

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