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Emotional Empathy Gets Harder Once You've Frozen Your Face With Botox

Are you annoyed? It's hard to tell. My face can't mimic yours.

Emotional Empathy Gets Harder Once You've Frozen Your Face With Botox

Photos: Adam Gault/SPL/Getty Images

In a cruel twist of fate, it turns out that people vain enough to have botulinum toxin injected into their faces to avoid wrinkles may also have their own emotional abilities stunted. The face-freezing effects of Botox make it hard for users to read the emotional expressions of other people, according to a new study.

Italian researchers showed the effect is caused by the phenomenon of embodiment—or embodied cognition—a theory that says our brains process other people's emotions better when our bodies mimic them. In this case, we unconsciously mimic facial expressions to better understand the emotional state of another person. We make a small smile to better understand the smile we see on the person we’re talking to, for example.

A botox-loaded face can’t do this as easily, so the emotion-reading messages it would usually send to the brain are lowered.

"The thankfully temporary paralysis of facial muscles that this toxin causes impairs our ability to capture the meaning of other people's facial expressions," the study lead author Jenny Baumeister said in a press release.

Baumeister and her team carried out tests on botox victims both before and two weeks after their treatment and used a control group of people who weren’t botoxed. The results showed a big change in the ability to read subtle expressions.

Big, obvious expressions are still legible. A wide grin is easy to interpret, but even so, the botox-filled participants fared worse when reading them. When it came to more fleeting expressions, though, they performed terribly. "For ‘equivocal’ stimuli that are more difficult to pick up," says co-author Francesco Foroni, "the effect of the paralysis was very strong."

Not that we need any more reasons to avoid botox, but if you were looking for one, here it is. Non-botoxers can also use this information to have some fun. You can, for instance, exchange knowing looks amongst your friends if a more narcissistic member of your group gets their face done. No matter how much eye-rolling or smirking you engage in, your-unwrinkled friend will be none the wiser.

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