April 25, 2011 -- The Botox injections used by millions each year to turn back the hands of time may do more than paralyze frown lines and other wrinkles; they may actually inhibit the ability to read others’ facial emotions.
In 2010, Botulinum Toxin Type Injections, which includes Botox and Dysport, were the No. 1 minimally invasive cosmetic procedure performed in the U.S., according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
“People are getting a lot of Botox to look better according to standards of culture, but they may be paying some subtle indirect cost in terms of losing ability to read the emotions of other people,” says study researcher David R. Neal, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. “If you have a poker face because your facial muscles are paralyzed, you can’t read others emotions as well.”
The new findings appear in the April 22nd issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
We read other people’s emotions in part by mimicking their facial expressions. This is akin to a very subtle “sixth sense” that we all have and use even without knowing it, Neal says.
“It gives you a clue that the person you just met was acting seductive or suspicious and then you mimic the signal,” he says. “If we can’t engage in mimicry, we lose that sixth sense.”
In the study, people who had injections of Botox were significantly less accurate at reading others’ emotions than those who had injections of the soft tissue filler Restylane. Restylane does not paralyze muscles; instead it adds volume to facial folds.
It is too early to know whether there are other ways that people compensate for this emotional disconnect, he says. “It could be that the more Botox you have, the worse your ability to read others emotions.”
But “it is a fairly subtle effect. People are not becoming automatons,” he says. “It’s just a matter of weighing whether the aesthetic and self-esteem boost outweighs any subtle impact on your ability to perceive others emotions.”
Joshua Ian Davis, PhD, a psychologist at Barnard College in New York City, says the new results are exciting from a social psychology perspective. Last year Davis published a study that showed Botox can dampen our ability to feel our own emotions.
“The findings extend to our understanding of reading other people’s emotions, not just feeling our own,” he says.