A novel method testing the ability to imitate composite emotional expressions reveals an association with empathy
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Social communication relies on intentional control of emotional expression. Its variability across cultures suggests important roles for imitation in developing control over enactment of subtly different facial expressions and therefore skills in emotional communication. Both empathy and the imitation of an emotionally communicative expression may rely on a capacity to share both the experience of an emotion and the intention or motor plan associated with its expression. Therefore, we predicted that facial imitation ability would correlate with empathic traits. We built arrays of visual stimuli by systematically blending three basic emotional expressions in controlled proportions. Raters then assessed accuracy of imitation by reconstructing the same arrays using photographs of participants' attempts at imitations of the stimuli. Accuracy was measured as the mean proximity of the participant photographs to the target stimuli in the array. Levels of performance were high, and rating was highly reliable. More empathic participants, as measured by the empathy quotient (EQ), were better facial imitators and, in particular, performed better on the more complex, blended stimuli. This preliminary study offers a simple method for the measurement of facial imitation accuracy and supports the hypothesis that empathic functioning may utilise motor control mechanisms which are also used for emotional expression.
Williams , J H G , Nicolson , A T A , Clephan , K J , de Grauw , H & Perrett , D I 2013 , ' A novel method testing the ability to imitate composite emotional expressions reveals an association with empathy ' PLoS One , vol 8 , no. 4 , e61941 . DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061941
Copyright: © 2013 Williams et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
This study was funded by a Nuffield Foundation Science Bursary awarded to KJC and support from Northwood Trust to JHGW.
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