Individual differences in pupil dilation to others’ emotional and neutral eyes with varying pupil sizes

Cognition and Emotion 36 (5):928-942 (2022)
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Abstract

Sensitivity to others’ emotional signals is an important factor for social interaction. While many studies of emotional reactivity focus on facial emotional expressions, signals such as pupil dilation which can indicate arousal, may also affect observers. For example, observers’ pupils dilate when viewing someone with dilated pupils, so-called pupillary contagion. Yet it is unclear how pupil size and emotional expression interact as signals. Further, examining individual differences in emotional reactivity to others can shed light on its mechanisms and potential outcomes. In the current study, adults’ (N = 453) pupil size was assessed while they viewed images of the eye region of individuals varying in emotional expression (neutral, happy, sad, fearful, angry) and pupil size (large, medium, small). Participants showed pupillary contagion regardless of the emotional expression. Individual differences in demographics (gender, age, socioeconomic status) and psychosocial factors (anxiety, depression, sleep problems) were also examined, yet the only factor related to pupillary contagion was socioeconomic status, with higher socioeconomic status predicting less pupillary contagion for emotionally-neutral stimuli. The results suggest that while pupillary contagion is a robust phenomenon, it can vary meaningfully across individuals.

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