Deliberately generated and imitated facial expressions of emotions in people with eating disorders

J Affect Disord. 2016 Feb:191:1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.10.044. Epub 2015 Nov 10.


Background: People with eating disorders have difficulties in socio emotional functioning that could contribute to maintaining the functional consequences of the disorder. This study aimed to explore the ability to deliberately generate (i.e., pose) and imitate facial expressions of emotions in women with anorexia (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN), compared to healthy controls (HC).

Methods: One hundred and three participants (36 AN, 25 BN, and 42 HC) were asked to pose and imitate facial expressions of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, and sadness. Their facial expressions were recorded and coded.

Results: Participants with eating disorders (both AN and BN) were less accurate than HC when posing facial expressions of emotions. Participants with AN were less accurate compared to HC imitating facial expressions, whilst BN participants had a middle range performance. All results remained significant after controlling for anxiety, depression and autistic features.

Limitations: The relatively small number of BN participants recruited for this study.

Conclusions: The study findings suggest that people with eating disorders, particularly those with AN, have difficulties posing and imitating facial expressions of emotions. These difficulties could have an impact in social communication and social functioning. This is the first study to investigate the ability to pose and imitate facial expressions of emotions in people with eating disorders, and the findings suggest this area should be further explored in future studies.

Keywords: Eating disorders; Emotion; Face; Imitation; Social functioning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anorexia / psychology*
  • Bulimia Nervosa / psychology*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior*
  • Middle Aged
  • Young Adult