Between Ourselves: Automatic mimicry reactions as related to empathic ability and patterns of attachment

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)


This thesis investigated emotional communication in experimentally created face-to-face interaction situations. The hypotheses were based on the conception of a process which leads to emotional empathy, assuming that automatic mimicking tendencies are involved in an automatic part of the process. Subjects were categorised as high- or low-empathic according to results on the Questionnaire Measure Of Emotional Empathy (QMEE). The compared parameters were facial mimicry reactions, represented by electromyographic (EMG) activity, when subjects were exposed to pictures of angry or happy faces. Comparisons were made at different stimulus exposure times in order to elicit reactions at different levels of information processing: preattentive (from 17 ms), automatic (17-56 ms), and controlled (100-2350 ms)levels. High-empathy subjects showed mimicking reactions already at the automatic level. In contrast, the low-empathy group reacted with inverted reactions and showed higher zygomaticus activity ("smiling") when exposed to angry faces. Thus, the result supported the hypothesis that mimicry is an early, automatic element involved in emotional empathy. Since patterns of attachment have been assumed to be involved in emotion regulation, the Relationship Scales Questionnaire (RSQ) was introduced to measure patterns of attachment and to relate this parameter to mimicry and empathy. Negative model-of-self subjects (corresponding to preoccupied and fearful-avoidant attachment patterns) showed a significantly stronger corrugator response (negative emotions) and reported more negative feelings than subjects with a positive model-of-self (corresponding to secure and dismissing-avoidant patterns of attachment) at the controlled level, representing emotionally regulated responses. These results supported the hypothesis that subjects with a negative model-of-self would show difficulties in regulation of negative emotions. The dismissing-avoidant subjects displayed "normal" corrugator reactions to angry faces at the automatic level of information processing (56 ms), whereas they showed inverted zygomatic reactions ("smiling") and decreased their corrugator response, to the angry face, at the controlled level (2350 ms), a reaction that may be may be interpreted as a repression of their preceeding negative emotional reaction. The dismissing-avoidant subjects scored significantly lower on QMEE than non-avoidant subjects, a result that may be explained as a repression of apprehensive reactions to others' negative emotional expression. Negative model-of-self subjects scored significantly higher on QMEE than positive model-of-self subjects and showed a mimicry reaction at the controlled level, which may be interpreted as a tendency for negative model-of-self subjects to be easily distressed by others showing negative emotions.


  • Marianne Sonnby-Borgström
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Psychology


  • neurophysiology, neuropsychology, Neurology, emotion regulation, attachment pattern, empathy, EMG, Key words:Facial mimicry, emotional contagion, Differential and individual psychology
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date2002 May 22
  • Marianne Sonnby-Borgström, Östervångsvägen 20, 224 60 Lund, Sweden
Print ISBNs91-628-5185-3
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2002-05-22 Time: 10:15 Place: N/A External reviewer(s) Name: Sundbom, Elisabet Title: [unknown] Affiliation: [unknown] --- Article: I. Sonnby-Borgström, M. (2002) Automatic Mimicry Reactions as Related to Differences in Emotional Empathy. Accepted for publication in Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Article: II. Sonnby-Borgström, M. & Jönsson, P. (2002) Models-of-Self and Others as Related to Facial Muscle Reactions at Different Levels of Cognitive Control. Accepted for publication in Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Article: III. Sonnby-Borgström, M. & Jönsson, P. (2002) Dismissing-avoidant Pattern of Attachment and Mimicry Reaction at Different Levels of Information Processing. Submitted for publication. Article: IV. Sonnby-Borgström, M. & Jönsson, P. (2002) Emotional Empathy as Related to Mimicry Reactions at Different Levels of Information Processing. Submitted for publication

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