Many people ask me how plastic surgery and botox affect the reading of and interpretation of facial expressions.

The short answer: it confuses everything.

The long answer:

Botox and plastic surgery limits a person’s ability to make full facial expressions. This not only effects how they feel their own emotions, but also how empathetic they are with others.

This is a frightening finding. As plastic surgery and Botox become more and more prevalent, emotional connection is going to be in jeopardy. Let’s look at what the research says.

How Botox Affects Understanding

A new study from the University of Wisconsin looked at participants who had received Botox to prevent frowning. The research that was presented at the Society for Personal and Social Psychology in Las Vegas, and will be published in the journal Psychological Science is headed by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology Ph.D. candidate David Havas.

He has found that blocking the expression of emotion actually changes how we understand and feel the emotion. In order to see how blocking a frown with botox might affect comprehension, Havas had participants read written statements before and then two weeks after the Botox treatment. The statements were:

  • Angry: “The pushy telemarketer won’t let you return to your dinner”
  • Sad: “You open your email in-box on your birthday to find no new emails”
  • Or Happy: “The water park is refreshing on the hot summer day.”

Havas wanted to see how quickly a participant could interpret the emotion expressed by the statement. He had them press a button when they had finished reading and interpreting it. The participants had no change in comprehension time for the happy statements, which makes sense since the botox injection was geared at frown lines (for sadness). But the subjects took more time to read the angry and sad phrases.

The conclusion: When you can’t make the face, you have trouble understanding it.

This means that people who have received botox are going to have a harder time reading the people around them.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 9.37.56 AMHow Botox Affects Emotions

Eric Finzi argues in his book, “How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships” that numbing our expressions, numbs our emotions. This is for both “good” and “bad” emotions. He found that botox to frown or sadness lines brings relief to depressed patients. But he also argues that botox to happiness wrinkles lessens feelings of happiness.

The conclusion: When you can’t express the emotion, you feel it less.

How Botox Affects Empathy

According to the latest research by David Neal and Tanya Chartrand, people who have received Botox shots and are physically not able to copy the face of the person they are speaking with, have trouble feeling empathy for them.

This is based on “embodied cognition,” which is when someone unconsciously mimics the person they are speaking with by copying their facial expression. When this happens, a signal is generated in the listeners brain that helps them understand the other person’s emotional intent.

Women who received Botox had a much harder time identifying facial expressions from pictures. The researchers argue this is because they could not make the face. More importantly, this makes it difficult to feel empathy for the people you are speaking with. With botox literally you cannot feel or mimic their pain.

See Lack of Emotions in Action

plastic surgery body langauge

Desiree Young, the biological mother of the missing Kyron Horman speaks to reporters in this video. And you will notice that she is having an expression of emotion but her face is completely still.

You can see when Desiree Young begins to “cry.” This is a very interesting video to watch. You notice her breathing rate increases and her vocal chords become tense–all signs of intense emotion. BUT her face doesn’t move at all! Literally her forehead has no wrinkles and her eyebrows don’t move! Then a few seconds later we finally see some wrinkles in the upper part of her forehead. Very, very faintly. Do you see it?

Obviously, I can’t confirm that Desiree Young has had botox or plastic surgery, but I think that this is a good example of how numb her face is. Her body and voice is showing stress but her face is placid.

The decision to get botox or plastic surgery is more than a cosmetic choice. It is an emotional choice. When thinking about botox and plastic surgery we have to address some of the emotional repercussions of numbing both our face and our feelings.


“Embodied Emotion Perception: Amplifying and Dampening Facial Feedback Modulates Emotional Perception Accuracy” by David T. Neal and Tanya L. Chartrand, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

David Havas, University of Wisconsin. “How Botox Affects Emotional Understanding.” 

Finzi, Eric. The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.


About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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