A novel method testing the ability to imitate composite emotional expressions reveals an association with empathy

Justin H. G. Williams*, Andrew T. A. Nicolson, Katie J. Clephan, Haro de Grauw, David I. Perrett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
2 Downloads (Pure)


Social communication relies on intentional control of emotional expression. Its variability across cultures suggests important roles for imitation in developing control over enactment of subtly different facial expressions and therefore skills in emotional communication. Both empathy and the imitation of an emotionally communicative expression may rely on a capacity to share both the experience of an emotion and the intention or motor plan associated with its expression. Therefore, we predicted that facial imitation ability would correlate with empathic traits. We built arrays of visual stimuli by systematically blending three basic emotional expressions in controlled proportions. Raters then assessed accuracy of imitation by reconstructing the same arrays using photographs of participants' attempts at imitations of the stimuli. Accuracy was measured as the mean proximity of the participant photographs to the target stimuli in the array. Levels of performance were high, and rating was highly reliable. More empathic participants, as measured by the empathy quotient (EQ), were better facial imitators and, in particular, performed better on the more complex, blended stimuli. This preliminary study offers a simple method for the measurement of facial imitation accuracy and supports the hypothesis that empathic functioning may utilise motor control mechanisms which are also used for emotional expression.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere61941
Number of pages7
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2013


  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • High-functioning autism
  • Facial expression
  • Social cognition
  • Sex-differences
  • Mirror neurons
  • Recognition
  • Children
  • Simulation
  • Quotient


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