How Botox Can Screw Up Your Social Life


RRWeb ILL ActorMasks 2 How Botox Can Screw Up Your Social Life

OK, this is some of the most interesting research I’ve come across in a long time, reported in Medical News Today. A brand new study out of USC and Duke University suggests that Botox impairs our ability to read other people’s emotions. According to the lead authors,

“one way we read the feelings of others is by mimicking their facial expressions, whereupon muscular feedback from our faces to our brains helps us decide which emotions the expressions correspond to.

They maintain that having Botox injections to smooth out wrinkles interferes with our ability to fully mimick expressions of others, thus dulling our ability to accurately perceive and interpret the emotions we are trying to read.

To verify this suggestion they carried out two experiments, one to dampen facial feedback signals and one to amplify them. They found that dampening them impaired and amplifying them improved people’s ability to read the emotions expressed on other people’s faces….

According to lead author David Neal, “The ability to mimic the facial expressions of others is a way of getting “a window into their inner world”, and when “we can’t mimic, as with Botox, that window is a little darker”…He suggests that the “body gives us important added information that helps us navigate the social world”.

This study is fascinating not only for its direct implications — Botox has hidden costs — but also for the light it sheds on the body’s tremendous power to shape emotions and social interactions. According to the “facial feedback hypothesis,” our facial expressions not only reflect our feelings — they cause them. Other studies have found that Botox recipients are less likely to get angry or sad in response to negative cues, because they can’t frown.

But the reverse is likely true, too; arranging your face or body in a certain position can bring about a desired emotional state. That’s why coaxing yourself to smile can shake you out of a blue funk, or make you feel less shy.

What do you think? Do you ever consciously adjust your face or body to boost your mood or your social interactions?



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  1. debbie stier on 27.04.2011 at 07:50 (Reply)

    Until about 3 years ago, I used to say “how could ANYONE inject poison into their face.”

    Now, in the last few years, I have to admit, I’ve been thinking about it (though not really close to actually doing it) — but I look way older in the mirror than I do in my head, and that’s distressing.

    I’m glad you’ve called this to my attention. Messing with mother nature is never a good idea for a whole variety of reasons that most of us never even consider. This would be one of them!

    It’s hard to age gracefully in a society that glorifies youth.

    1. Susan Cain on 27.04.2011 at 10:12 (Reply)

      So true. And thx for being so honest. I think there are very few (over-40) people these days who don’t think about Botox, if only for five minutes. Or ten.

      And, btw, you are one of the most youthful people I know!

  2. Rush (@neuroshft) on 27.04.2011 at 09:49 (Reply)

    Just a warning that this research may not be as solid as you’d think based on the amount of coverage it is getting. I don’t have a copy of the actual paper, but I notice that the published abstract makes no mention of the size of the effect. It just describes it as “significant,” which anyone familiar with statistics knows can mean “barely noticeable” as often as it means “substantial.” Does Botox make a 5% difference? 10%? The researchers don’t say, suggesting that the actual figure is not one of the more dramatic outcomes of their work. And in research such as this, which is done without a double blind, the observed effect, if small, could well result entirely from the expectations of the experimenter.

    In addition, the experiment did not include a crucial control. What would have been the results if Botox treatment had been given, for instance, in the back of the head, away from the face? Or in the face, but in non-immobilizing doses? Botox is known to have neurological effects even when it doesn’t paralyze muscles. Perhaps it was these neurological effects, rather than any interruption of facial muscle feedback, that produced the (apparently small) difference the researchers observed.

    I’m not arguing for cosmetic use of Botox. And I have no doubt that adjusting your body or facial expression can affect your mental state. But for reasons relating to my own work, I’ve made a practice of critically appraising the recent studies suggesting that “Botox paralyzes your emotions,” and I’ve generally found them to be poorly designed.

  3. Susan Cain on 27.04.2011 at 10:14 (Reply)

    Thx, Rush, for this info — much appreciated! You said you’ve been looking into this for reasons relating to your own work — can you tell us more about it? I’m guessing something interesting.

    1. Rush (@neuroshft) on 28.04.2011 at 14:15 (Reply)

      Well, I’m an inventor, which pretty much allows me to focus on anything I want, and I have long been interested in the question of how to encourage troubled feelings to resolve themselves. I got interested in Botox when I read on the net how Botox cosmetic injections had had the surprising effect of relieving depression (some German researchers filed for a patent on this). I had a hunch that it might be possible to get a similar salutary effect without muscle paralysis using other more benign neuro-active substances. This turned out to be correct. The substances (including many common vitamins and dietary supplements) just need to be focally delivered through the skin at locations where nerves lie close to the surface. The frown area of the brow provides a convenient location, but there are other sites all over the body that will work just as well. (So it has nothing to do with facial muscle feedback). You can read a bit about more this at the small website I maintain at

      1. Susan Cain on 28.04.2011 at 21:18 (Reply)


  4. Pri on 27.04.2011 at 11:46 (Reply)

    While several women over the age of 35/40 are opting for botox they are also having their first child or their child is only a few years old.
    I cannot help but wonder the extent the affect of botox’s lack of expression will have on their child/ren.
    As a child my mothers facial expression was a huge indicator of her mood, when I crossed my limits of disruptive behaviour, when she was happy with me and even proud of me. Missing out on these emotional indicators must surely affect a child’s development of emotional cues (if their mother is their primary caregiver).

  5. Patricia on 27.04.2011 at 17:10 (Reply)

    This is interesting information and also not surprising. I try to breath through my nose and smile when exercising, because one loses 10 more calories every 20 minutes of smiling and it soothes the body - allowing for better muscle development when exercising….or so I am told. I just feel better.

    I would think that not having accurate facial expressions would cause children and pets problems in reading and understanding adults. We certainly can not get an accurate readout when faces are deadpan.

    A number of brides recently have been using botox to keep from sweating on their wedding day. I think they must be doing other things too, because deadpan and robot like seems to be in vogue - not excited and happy? We used to worry about the groomsmen having too much beer before the ceremony…but now we need to included what is the bride taking to be such a zombie?

    Thank you for sharing this and it made me think.

  6. Elizabeth on 27.04.2011 at 20:07 (Reply)

    I had read something about how people mimic each other in body language and facial expressions before (was it one of the Malcolm Gladwell books?) and started to watch out for it. In my anecdotal experience it seems to be true. I find myself standing in conversation with arms crossed, and lo and behold so is the person I am talking to. Who started it? No idea. Not a conscious decision on my part at least.

    Related, I am a bit skeptical that botox can have that big of an effect… I have never tried it, but I thought a “good” doctor sets the doses so people retain a reasonable amount of facial expression? I have had friends claim they’ve used it and I don’t notice any freakish facial immobility, nor have I felt any thawing of the friendship. Plus, it wears off.

  7. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 20:40 (Reply)

    I exercise my facial muscles with my hands and although it has to be done daily, it has made a difference. I also do these exercises on my neck and chin area. I realize it doesn’t compare to Botox or surgery, but it works well enough to show without hindering muscle movement. The tightening of muscles and skin prevents deep wrinkles from taking hold. Works for me.

  8. The Good with the Bad … or What’s Rattling Around in My Head | Like Telling the Truth on 27.07.2012 at 05:58

    [...] pretty sure Bob Greene said I need Botox. I’m too chicken cheap sane to get [...]

  9. Katie on 19.09.2012 at 15:54 (Reply)

    The idea that mimicking facial expressions helps us to understand another’s emotions immediately led me to wonder, do those with Bell’s Palsy or otherwise impaired facial muscles have a disadvantage in interpreting others’ emotions because they can’t mimic?

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