Expressive suppression to pain in others reduces negative emotion but not vicarious pain in the observer

Steven R. Anderson, Wenxin Li, Shihui Han, Elizabeth A. Reynolds Losin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Although there are situations where it may be appropriate to reduce one’s emotional response to the pain of others, the impact of an observer’s emotional expressivity on their response to pain in others is still not well understood. In the present study, we examined how the emotion regulation strategy expressive suppression influences responses to pain in others. Based on prior research findings on expressive suppression and pain empathy, we hypothesized that expressive suppression to pain expression faces would reduce neural representations of negative emotion, vicarious pain, or both. To test this, we applied two multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA)-derived neural signatures to our data, the Picture Induced Negative Emotion Signature (PINES; Chang, Gianaros, Manuck, Krishnan, and Wager (2015)) and a neural signature of facial expression induced vicarious pain (Zhou et al., 2020). In a sample of 60 healthy individuals, we found that viewing pain expression faces increased neural representations of negative emotion and vicarious pain. However, expressive suppression to pain faces reduced neural representations of negative emotion only. Providing support for a connection between neural representations of negative emotion and pain empathy, PINES responses to pain faces were associated with participants’ trait-level empathy and the perceived unpleasantness of pain faces. Findings suggest that a consequence of suppressing one’s facial expressions in response to the pain of others may be a reduction in the affective aspect of empathy but not the experience of vicarious pain itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-310
Number of pages19
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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