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Pain Research and Management
Volume 19 (2014), Issue 1, Pages 15-22
Original Article

The Influence of Communicative Relations on Facial Responses to Pain: Does It Matter Who Is Watching?

Anna J Karmann, Stefan Lautenbacher, Florian Bauer, and Miriam Kunz

Physiological Psychology, Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany

Copyright © 2014 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


BACKGROUND: Facial responses to pain are believed to be an act of communication and, as such, are likely to be affected by the relationship between sender and receiver.

OBJECTIVES: To investigate this effect by examining the impact that variations in communicative relations (from being alone to being with an intimate other) have on the elements of the facial language used to communicate pain (types of facial responses), and on the degree of facial expressiveness.

METHODS: Facial responses of 126 healthy participants to phasic heat pain were assessed in three different social situations: alone, but aware of video recording; in the presence of an experimenter; and in the presence of an intimate other. Furthermore, pain catastrophizing and sex (of participant and experimenter) were considered as additional influences.

RESULTS: Whereas similar types of facial responses were elicited independent of the relationship between sender and observer, the degree of facial expressiveness varied significantly, with increased expressiveness occurring in the presence of the partner. Interestingly, being with an experimenter decreased facial expressiveness only in women. Pain catastrophizing and the sex of the experimenter exhibited no substantial influence on facial responses.

CONCLUSION: Variations in communicative relations had no effect on the elements of the facial pain language. The degree of facial expressiveness, however, was adapted to the relationship between sender and observer. Individuals suppressed their facial communication of pain toward unfamiliar persons, whereas they overtly displayed it in the presence of an intimate other. Furthermore, when confronted with an unfamiliar person, different situational demands appeared to apply for both sexes.