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Botoxifying Empathy

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 28, 2012

From The Guardian (by Ian Tucker):

Tanya L Chartrand is a pro­fessor of psychology and neu­ro­science at the Duke Uni­versity Fuqua School of Busi­ness in North Car­olina. With David T Neal from the Uni­versity of South­ern California she re­cently pub­lished a paper enti­tled “Embod­ied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Damp­ening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotional Perception Accuracy”, which found that us­ing Botox – a neu­rotoxin injected into muscles to reduce frown lines – reduces a per­son’s ability to empathise with oth­ers.

It wouldn’t surprise people to hear that it’s diffi­cult to tell what the Botoxed are feel­ing, but your study found that the Botoxed have lit­tle idea what we are feel­ing?

Yes, we always as­sume that you can’t tell what the Botoxed people are feel­ing because their faces are somewhat par­alyzed and can appear frozen, but what is less intuitive is that be­ing injected with Botox impairs their ability to under­stand what oth­er people around you are feel­ing.

To demonstrate this you asked women to look at photographs of people’s eyes and match them to human emotions…

Yes, it’s called the “Reading the mind in the eyes test“, and it’s sometimes giv­en to people on the autism spectrum. The people who had a Botox treat­ment in the pre­vi­ous two weeks were not as accurate as our con­trol group, who had been treated with Restylane – a skin filler – whose results were similar to untreated adults.

Why did you choose a con­trol group who had used filler, rather than a random group?

We wanted to match the two groups on ev­ery­thing we could except that one had the paralys­ing agent and the oth­er hadn’t. The Restylane group are demo­graph­ically similar to the Botox group – in terms of age and gender, socio-eco­nom­ic status, and had the same concerns with looking good. So if we got a random group of people who would nev­er have one of these cosmet­ic procedures then they could differ in a lot of oth­er ways. This way we made sure that we were just isolating the fact that Botox is

the cause.

The study talks about “embod­ied cog­nition” – could you explain?

This is the idea that the way we think and feel is grounded in our bod­ies. The way we under­stand oth­ers’ emotions is to expe­ri­ence those emotions our­selves. We do this with facial micro-mimicry. So if you are winc­ing in pain I im­me­diately do a micro-wince, and that sends signals to my brain that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain, and by expe­ri­enc­ing it my­self I now under­stand what you are go­ing through.

So Botox messes with our embod­ied cog­nition?

Yes, it’s interfering with that first step, which is mimicking facial ex­pres­sions and that’s what sets the whole thing off. If you can’t mimic some­one’s wince, your brain isn’t go­ing to be sent the same message – that this per­son is expe­ri­enc­ing pain – so you end up not be­ing as accurate and not re­ally under­standing the emotion.

If your empa­thy skills are inhib­ited by Botox what out­comes might that have for your day-to-day life?

My collab­orator, David Neal, was initially inter­ested in looking at the consequences for romantic relation­ships. Say if you’re married, you get Botox and then if you are not able to under­stand whatyour partner is feel­ing any more, it could lead to romantic dissatisfaction. We needed to see the ba­sic ef­fect before looking at some downstream consequences for marital satisfaction. This is maybe what we will study next.

So some­one could have Botox to look better, say for go­ing on dates, but then they find there’s no “connection”…

Absolutely. The irony is that having Botox to look better and be more attractive may make you less attractive in some ways, because you’re not empathis­ing with oth­ers so well.

So are the ben­efits of Botox overrated?

I know there’s been some research showing that Botox can help people who are de­pressed feel better. So I wouldn’t want to say there aren’t some pos­itive ben­efits people gain from feel­ing better about them­selves, feel­ing more attractive, feel­ing younger, but this is one neg­ative to point out to people. Some people will think, “Fine, I’d rather not empathise.” It’s not like Botox makes you completely un­able to under­stand any emotions in oth­ers, but it def­i­nitely reduces your capacity to under­stand those emotions.

The idea for the study came from a paper that said long and happily married couples began to resemble

Related Situationist posts:

The Financial Situation of Empathy

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