A bit dense

Margaret Pridgen


With high blood pressure, we can miss the emotions in faces or text.

Psychologist Jim McCubbin knew last fall that news of his research had gone viral. Still, he was surprised when it made it to Saturday Night Live.

The gist of the story? High blood pres­sure can cause “emotional dampening,” a reduced ability to recognize anger, fear, joy, or sadness in the faces of others. People with this problem can seem a little clueless.

“They’re called dads!” quipped SNL’s Seth Myers. “Look, maybe if you tell me have why you’re crying I can help you out.” McCubbin laughs. “I had friends and relatives from all over calling me after that. Our research doesn’t often make it into the popular culture.”

It’s not really a joking matter, though.

High blood pressure has long been known to decrease sensitivity to pain stimuli. In fact, this effect occurs in people with a family history of hypertension even before their blood pressure becomes elevated. People at risk for hypertension also exaggerated stress reactions. McCubbin and some colleagues won­dered if there was an unknown but inti­mate relationship between blood-pressure control mechanisms and other brain func­tions. He led a study reporting that subjects with hypertension, and those at risk for hypertension, did poorly at recognizing the emotional meaning of facial expressions, written communications, and other cues.

In complex social situations such as work, McCubbin says, people rely on facial expressions and verbal emotional cues to interact with others. But with emotional dampening, people tend to miss the cues. “If your work supervisor is angry, you may think he’s just kidding,” McCubbin says. “This can lead to miscommunica­tion, poor job performance, and stress. If you have emotional

dampening, you may distrust others because you can’t read emotional meaning in their faces or their verbal communications. You may even take more risks because you cannot fully grasp the threats in your environment.”

Blunting positives too

His theory of emotional dampening also applies to positive emotions. “Damp­ening of positive emotions may rob you of the restorative benefits of close personal relations, vacations, and hobbies,” he says.

McCubbin’s study of 106 adults from a healthy, middle-aged African American population was followed by a project in Creative Inquiry, Clemson’s program of undergraduate research. If emotional dampening reduces appraisal of threat, the students wondered, could it also dampen perceptions of risk?

Eight undergraduate students on the team studied this relationship in forty-five young adults. They found that higher blood pressure was associated with higher reported benefit of risky behaviors, especially in financial decisions. The find­ings suggest that people with significant emotional dampening may perceive lower threat and thus greater benefit from risky behaviors, and they may engage in those risky behaviors more frequently.

McCubbin is proud that his students were among a handful of undergraduate research teams invited to present their findings to the world’s top researchers at a poster session of the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine last spring.

“Undergraduates are the new gradu­ate students,” he says. “They designed the experiment, performed the research, and did much of the analysis. They are per­forming at the level of graduate students a decade ago, and it is really a valuable experience for them as they apply to medi­cal and graduate school.”


James McCubbin is a professor of psychol­ogy in the College of Business and Behavioral Science. The Clemson Creative Inquiry team, mentored by McCubbin, included students Jack Graham, Melissa Hibdon, Brittani Loukas, Danielle Brower-Lingsch, Gracie Ross, Suzannah Isgett, Aaron Nathan, and Ronald Schram. McCubbin was lead author of a study reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine and supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging, both of the National Institutes of Health.

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