Having Botox injections to smooth facial wrinkles dulls people’s ability to read emotions in others, said two US psychologists in a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science recently.

Lead author David Neal, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and his co-author Tanya Chartrand, marketing and psychology professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina, carried out the study.

Neal and Chartrand suggest that one way we read the feelings of others is by mimicking their facial expressions, whereupon muscular feedback from our faces to our brains helps us decide which emotions the expressions correspond to.

They maintain that having Botox injections to smooth out wrinkles interferes with our ability to fully mimick expressions of others, thus dulling our ability to accurately perceive and interpret the emotions we are trying to read.

To verify this suggestion they carried out two experiments, one to dampen facial feedback signals and one to amplify them. They found that dampening them impaired and amplifying them improved people’s ability to read the emotions expressed on other people’s faces.

In the dampening experiment they compared two groups that underwent cosmetic procedures to remove facial wrinkles: one group had an injection that reduces muscular feedback (the Botox group), and the other did not (the control group, they received a dermal filler).

They found that “emotion perception was significantly impaired” in the Botox group.

In the amplifying experiment they tested the notion that feedback signals are stronger when facial muscles try to contract but meet resistance, which was brought about by getting participants to apply a gel to their face.

They found that “emotion perception improved, and did so only for emotion judgments that theoretically could benefit from facial feedback”.

Neal said the ability to mimic the facial expressions of others is a way of getting “a window into their inner world”, and when “we can’t mimic, as with Botox, that window is a little darker”.

Botox removes wrinkles by paralysing muscles. But wrinkles are not just signs of aging, they also give clues to how people might be feeling: crow’s feet can express disgust (eg when we wrinkle our nose), but they can also express happiness when we smile, while lines of the forehead can signifiy fear, and “valleys” between the eyebrows can show worry.

Neal said it was “somewhat ironic” that people use Botox to come across better in social situations, yet you “may look better but you could suffer because you can’t read other people’s emotions as well”.

He drew comparisons between paralysing facial muscles and communicating through email and Twitter, when “you eliminate a slice of information”, said Neal, “it can be the difference between successful communication and failure”.

Neal suggests the “body gives us important added information that helps us navigate the social world”.

A future avenue of investigation could be to see how Botox interferes with people’s ability to lie successfully and in their communication with significant others.

“Embodied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Dampening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotion Perception Accuracy.”
David T. Neal and Tanya L. Chartrand
Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 21 April 2011
DOI: 10.1177/1948550611406138

Additional source: University of Southern California.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD