Psychophysiology 2012 Jul 7;49(7):998-1004. Epub 2012 May 7.
Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neurodynamics, School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading, UK.
Spontaneous mimicry is a marker of empathy. Conditions characterized by reduced spontaneous mimicry (e.g., autism) also display deficits in sensitivity to social rewards. We tested if spontaneous mimicry of socially rewarding stimuli (happy faces) depends on the reward value of stimuli in 32 typical participants. An evaluative conditioning paradigm was used to associate different reward values with neutral target faces. Subsequently, electromyographic activity over the Zygomaticus Major was measured whilst participants watched video clips of the faces making happy expressions. Higher Zygomaticus Major activity was found in response to happy faces conditioned with high reward versus low reward. Moreover, autistic traits in the general population modulated the extent of spontaneous mimicry of happy faces. This suggests a link between reward and spontaneous mimicry and provides a possible underlying mechanism for the reduced response to social rewards seen in autism.