Study: Botox Users Have Trouble Reading Emotions in Others

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Woman receiving Botox injection, eyes closed

We all know that Botox injections paralyze facial muscles — which is why it’s used between the brows to iron out frown lines — and can therefore make users appear less emotional. Now a new study finds that the cosmetic toxin may also make recipients less able to read the emotions of others.

Social psychologists say we identify emotions in part by mimicking each other’s facial expressions. “When you mimic, you get a window into their inner world,” said lead researcher David Neal, a psychology professor at University of Southern California, in a statement. “When we can’t mimic, as with Botox, that window is a little darker.”

For the new study, researchers conducted two experiments: the first involved 31 women who had received either Botox or Restylane, a dermal filler that smoothes wrinkles but doesn’t affect facial movement, in Los Angeles (where better to conduct a study on cosmetic procedures?). In a second experiment, 56 women and 39 men were given a topical facial gel that functioned as an “anti-Botox,” by augmenting signals from facial muscles. All participants were asked looked at a series of faces on a computer screen and identify the displayed emotions.

The researchers found that compared with the Restylane-treated control group, the women who got Botox were less able to read emotions based on facial expression. Meanwhile, the participants who got the gel were better than the others at perceiving emotions.

Past research has suggested that muscle-paralyzing treatments also hinder people from feeling their own emotions — which could potentially interfere with their ability to empathize. USA Today reported:

A similar study published last year in the journal Emotion said Botox injections may decrease a person’s ability to feel emotions. That study, conducted at Columbia University, compared Botox and Restylane in 68 people. Its lead author, psychologist Joshua Davis, hasn’t seen the new study but says the finding “would suggest that facial expression is an integral component of what we consider our emotional experience. Certainly the concept is one that fits with the research we did.”

“Human communication can be a very subtle thing,” Neal said. “When you eliminate a slice of information — whether by communicating through e-mail and Twitter or by paralyzing your own facial muscles — it can be the difference between successful communication and failure.”