Surgeons show softer side too

Dr Owen Churches says surgeons are just as emotionally attached to their patients as physicians

A Flinders University study has debunked the myth that surgeons are callous and aloof, with the results revealing surgeons show their emotional side to patients just as much as physicians.

The research, led by Dr Owen Churches from the Brain and Cognition Laboratory at Flinders, analysed nearly 6,000 portrait photographs of surgeons and physicians advertised on US medical insurance websites to determine whether surgeons are really less emotional than physicians when dealing with patients, based on the angle of their face in the photos.

Dr Churches said there is an asymmetry in the degree to which emotional information is conveyed by the face, with the right side being less expressive than the left.

“Because the cranial nerves crossover from the brain to the face, the right hemisphere of the brain is slightly more involved in the expression of emotion while the left side is more contorted, which we can measure by muscle movement,” Dr Churches said.

“If you asked someone to pose for an important family memento they’d turn slightly, despite being unaware that they have turned at all, to show the left side of their face to the camera,” he said.

“But if you asked someone to pose for a Nobel Prize-winning portrait, they’d turn to the right to hide their emotions and look as serious as possible.”

Therefore, Dr Churches said that if the stereotype was true, surgeons would be more likely to show their right cheek in photographs.

“The debate between who is more emotionally involved with their patients – surgeons or doctor – is one of the most frequently cited, however we found that the doctors’ specialisation did not predict the way they turned in their portraits.

“Hence, the notion that surgeons are all slice-and dice and less emotional in their relationship with their patients compared with physicians isn’t substantiated by our data.”

Dr Churches, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Psychology, said the research did indicate an emotional bias in female and male doctors, with females more likely to show the left side of their face.

The study, Facing up to stereotypes: Surgeons and physicians are no different in their emotional expressiveness, was recently published online in the international journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition.

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