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Keywords:

  • empathy;
  • emotional contagion;
  • facial expression;
  • automatic reactions;
  • microgenesis;
  • unconscious processing

The hypotheses of this investigation were derived by conceiving of automatic mimicking as a component of emotional empathy. Differences between subjects high and low in emotional empathy were investigated. The parameters compared were facial mimicry reactions, as represented by electromyographic (EMG) activity when subjects were exposed to pictures of angry or happy faces, and the degree of correspondence between subjects’ facial EMG reactions and their self–reported feelings. The comparisons were made at different stimulus exposure times in order to elicit reactions at different levels of information processing. The high–empathy subjects were found to have a higher degree of mimicking behavior than the low–empathy subjects, a difference that emerged at short exposure times (17–40 ms) that represented automatic reactions. The low–empathy subjects tended already at short exposure times (17–40 ms) to show inverse zygomaticus muscle reactions, namely “smiling” when exposed to an angry face. The high–empathy group was characterized by a significantly higher correspondence between facial expressions and self–reported feelings. No differences were found between the high– and low–empathy subjects in their verbally reported feelings when presented a happy or an angry face. Thus, the differences between the groups in emotional empathy appeared to be related to differences in automatic somatic reactions to facial stimuli rather than to differences in their conscious interpretation of the emotional situation.