Processing of observed pupil size modulates perception of sadness and predicts empathy

Emotion. 2007 Nov;7(4):724-9. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.7.4.724.


Facial autonomic responses may contribute to emotional communication and reveal individual affective style. In this study, the authors examined how observed pupillary size modulates processing of facial expression, extending the finding that incidentally perceived pupils influence ratings of sadness but not those of happy, angry, or neutral facial expressions. Healthy subjects rated the valence and arousal of photographs depicting facial muscular expressions of sadness, surprise, fear, and disgust. Pupil sizes within the stimuli were experimentally manipulated. Subjects themselves were scored with an empathy questionnaire. Diminishing pupil size linearly enhanced intensity and valence judgments of sad expressions (but not fear, surprise, or disgust). At debriefing, subjects were unaware of differences in pupil size across stimuli. These observations complement an earlier study showing that pupil size directly influences processing of sadness but not other basic emotional facial expressions. Furthermore, across subjects, the degree to which pupil size influenced sadness processing correlated with individual differences in empathy score. Together, these data demonstrate a central role of sadness processing in empathetic emotion and highlight the salience of implicit autonomic signals in affective communication.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Empathy*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pupil / physiology*
  • Unconscious, Psychology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*