Emotional empathy as related to mimicry reactions at different levels of information processing

  • Sonnby-Borgström M
  • Jönsson P
  • Svensson O
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The hypotheses of this investigation were based on conceiving of facial mimicry reactions in face-to-face interactions as an early automatic component in the process of emotional empathy. Differences between individuals high and low in emotional empathy were investigated. The parameters compared were facial mimicry reactions, as represented by electromyographic (EMC) activity, when individuals were exposed to pictures of angry or happy faces. The present study distinguished between spontaneous facial reactions and facial expressions associated with more controlled or modulated emotions at different information processing levels, first at a preattentive level and then consecutively at more consciously controlled levels: 61 participants were exposed to pictures at three different exposure times (17, 56, and 2350 ms). A significant difference in facial mimicry reactions between high- and low-empathy participants emerged at short exposure times (56 ms), representing automatic, spontaneous reactions, with high-empathy participants showing a significant mimicking reaction. The low-empathy participants did not display mimicking at any exposure time. On the contrary, the low-empathy participants showed, in response to angry faces, a tendency to an elevated activation in the cheek region, which often is associated with smiling.

Author-supplied keywords

  • EMC
  • Emotional contagion
  • Empathy
  • Facial expressions
  • Facial mimicry
  • Mirror neurons

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  • Marianne Sonnby-Borgström

  • Peter Jönsson

  • Owe Svensson

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