Researchers use both subjective self-report and objective measures, such as official records, to investigate the impact of childhood adversity on psychopathology. However, it is unclear whether subjective and objective measures of childhood adversity (a) show agreement, and (b) differentially predict psychopathology.
To address this, we conducted a pre-registered meta-analysis to examine the agreement between subjective and objective measures of childhood adversity, and their prediction of psychopathology. We searched in PubMed, PsycINFO and Embase for articles with both subjective measures (self-reports) and objective measures of childhood adversity (comprising official records, or reports from multiple informants unrelated to the target individual), and measures of psychopathology.
We identified 22 studies (n = 18,163) with data on agreement between subjective and objective measures of childhood adversities, and 17 studies (n = 14,789) with data on the associations between subjective and objective measures with psychopathology. First, we found that subjective and objective measures of childhood adversities were only moderately correlated (e.g. for maltreatment, r = .32, 95% CI = 0.23–0.41). Second, subjective measures of childhood adversities were associated with psychopathology, independent of objective measures (e.g. for maltreatment, r = .16, 95% CI = 0.09–0.22). In contrast, objective measures of childhood adversities had null or minimal associations with psychopathology, independent of subjective measures (e.g. r for maltreatment = .06, 95% CI = −0.02–0.13).
Our findings suggest that the effects of childhood adversity on psychopathology are primarily driven by a person’s subjective experience. If this is the case, clinical interventions targeting memories and cognitive processes surrounding childhood adversity may reduce the risk of psychopathology in exposed individuals.