Attentional processing of other’s facial display of pain: An eye tracking study

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SummaryInitial attention allocation and attentional maintenance to facial expressions of pain is dependent upon intensity of facial pain expressiveness and observers’ pain intensity and catastrophizing.The present study investigated the role of observer pain catastrophizing and personal pain experience as possible moderators of attention to varying levels of facial pain expression in others. Eye movements were recorded as a direct and continuous index of attention allocation in a sample of 35 undergraduate students while viewing slides presenting picture pairs consisting of a neutral face combined with either a low, moderate, or high expressive pain face. Initial orienting of attention was measured as latency and duration of first fixation to 1 of 2 target images (i.e., neutral face vs pain face). Attentional maintenance was measured by gaze duration. With respect to initial orienting to pain, findings indicated that participants reporting low catastrophizing directed their attention more quickly to pain faces than to neutral faces, with fixation becoming increasingly faster with increasing levels of facial pain expression. In comparison, participants reporting high levels of catastrophizing showed decreased tendency to initially orient to pain faces, fixating equally quickly on neutral and pain faces. Duration of the first fixation revealed no significant effects. With respect to attentional maintenance, participants reporting high catastrophizing and pain intensity demonstrated significantly longer gaze duration for all face types (neutral and pain expression), relative to low catastrophizing counterparts. Finally, independent of catastrophizing, higher reported pain intensity contributed to decreased attentional maintenance to pain faces vs neutral faces. Theoretical implications and further research directions are discussed.

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