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To most people, a sympathetic facial expression comes almost naturally to their faces when they see someone else in pain. According to a recent study, this expression encourages them to feel the person’s pain, albeit emotionally.

The study conducted on 60 people found that observing other people’s pain with empathetic expressions led to vicarious pain and negative emotions. This just goes to prove that facial expressions are heavily linked to emotions.


This study was conducted on healthy people from China and The US using brain imaging to determine how suppressing facial response affected brain images. The researchers used Facial Expression Vicarious Pain and Picture Induced Negative Emotion Signature, two previously developed neural signatures, to map out these conclusions.

The researchers then compared the results of the imaging to questionnaires that were filled by the 60 subjects. These questionnaires required the participants to fill in their emotions towards empathetic facial expressions.

The study’s authors found that participants whose responses to the questionnaire were more empathetic and related the expressions to negative emotions also had higher brain responses to the PINES. These participants also reported looking at things from other people’s perspectives more in their lives. The participants who had lower brain responses to the PINES and FEIVPS were less empathetic on the questionnaire and reported less vicarious pain.

It is also interesting to note that the study’s results were not affected by the participant’s country of origin or gender. Expressive suppression, therefore, works similarly in all humans.

How we can apply this

Empathy is an important emotion and is necessary for humanity. However, there are some situations where having less empathetic emotions would yield better results. In such cases, expression suppression can be applied.

Doctors and medical practitioners can, for example, train in expression suppression to facially respond less to their patients’ pain. This would ensure that they preserve their emotional resources and focus on getting solutions for the patients.