An experimental examination of catastrophizing-related interpretation bias for ambiguous facial expressions of pain using an incidental learning task

A. Khatibi*, Martien Schrooten, L.M.G. Vancleef, J.W.S. Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Individuals with pain-related concerns are likely to interpret ambiguous pain-related information in a threatening manner. It is unknown whether this interpretation bias also occurs for ambiguous pain-related facial expressions. This study examined whether individuals who habitually attach a catastrophic meaning to pain are characterized by negative interpretation bias for ambiguous pain-related facial expressions. Sixty-four female undergraduates completed an incidental learning task during which pictures of faces were presented, each followed by a visual target at one of two locations. Participants indicated target location by pressing one of two response keys. During the learning phase, happy and painful facial expressions predicted target location. During two test phases, morphed facial expressions of pain and happiness were added, equally often followed by a target at either location. Faster responses following morphs to targets at the location predicted by painful expressions compared to targets at the location predicted by happy expressions were taken to reflect pain-related interpretation bias. During one test phase, faces were preceded by either a safe or threatening context cue. High, but not low, pain-catastrophizers responded faster following morphs to targets at the location predicted by painful expressions than to targets at the other location (when participants were aware of the contingency between expression type and target location). When context cues were presented, there was no indication of interpretation bias. Participants were also asked to directly classify the facial expressions that were presented during the incidental learning task. Participants classified morphs more often as happy than as painful, independent of their level of pain catastrophizing. This observation is discussed in terms of differences between indirect and direct measures of interpretation bias.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1002
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sept 2014


  • direct measures
  • incidental learning task
  • indirect measures
  • interpretation bias
  • pain catastrophizing
  • painful facial expressions

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