BACKGROUND: Facial expressions, prosody, and speech content constitute channels by which information is exchanged. Little is known about the simultaneous and differential contribution of these channels to empathy when they provide emotionality or neutrality. Especially neutralised speech content has gained little attention with regards to influencing the perception of other emotional cues. METHODS: Participants were presented with video clips of actors telling short-stories. One condition conveyed emotionality in all channels while the other conditions either provided neutral speech content, facial expression, or prosody, respectively. Participants judged the emotion and intensity presented, as well as their own emotional state and intensity. Skin conductance served as a physiological measure of emotional reactivity. RESULTS: Neutralising channels significantly reduced empathic responses. Electrodermal recordings confirmed these findings. The differential effect of the communication channels on empathy prerequisites was that target emotion recognition of the other decreased mostly when the face was neutral, whereas decreased emotional responses attributed to the target emotion were especially present in neutral speech. CONCLUSION: Multichannel integration supports conscious and autonomous measures of empathy and emotional reactivity. Emotional facial expressions influence emotion recognition, whereas speech content is important for responding with an adequate own emotional state, possibly reflecting contextual emotion-appraisal.
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