Researchers have long wondered whether physical expressions of emotions, from smiling to crying, intensify feelings of emotion. They should now have an answer to this: According to the “facial feedback hypothesis,” smiling should make people feel happier, while frowning should make them sadder.
After decades of controversy, psychologists finally seem to agree on the “facial feedback hypothesis.” However, the idea has a difficult history. According to an influential study in the 1980s, people found Gary Larson’s The Far Side comics to be funnier when they held a pen between their teeth without touching their lips. Holding the pen like this activates the laughter muscles and sends positive signals to the brain.
But the result of this research took off in 2016 when 17 different laboratories failed to replicate the pen-in-the-mouth study. Three years later, a meta-analysis of more than 100 published studies found that there may have been an effect after all. The debate between researchers and psychologists continued to rage.
Many smiles cooperation
To settle it definitively, Stanford researcher Nicholas Coles organized several collaborative smiles to conduct an experiment that all proponents, critics, and skeptics could endorse. Psychologists recruited nearly 4,000 people from 19 countries and divided them into three groups.
The first to use the method of pen in the mouth to activate the facial muscles to smile. The second imitates the laughter of the actors’ facial expressions. The third was directed to move the corners of their lips toward their ears and tighten their cheeks, using only the muscles of their faces. According to a report in Nature Human Behavior, the pen-in-mouth method didn’t do much for emotions, but the other two methods measured a small but significant trigger for happiness.
“Some people think that emotional experiences are highly cognitive – that is, they are driven solely by our assessments of what is happening in the world. However, this work suggests that it is also physiological.” The emotional experience appears to arise in part from reactions or sensations from the peripheral nervous system. A racing heart can make people anxious, furrowed eyebrows can make them angry, and an extended smile can make them happy.”
What do other psychologists believe?
Dr. Magdalena Rechlowska, who works on facial expressions, emotions, and culture at Queen’s University Belfast, claims that such studies are “extremely useful” for psychology. “As a researcher working on how facial movements affect our feelings, I am pleased to see that an independent, rigorous, and comprehensive study has found support for the facial reactions hypothesis,” Richlowska said.
Tony Manstead, professor emeritus of psychology at Cardiff University, praised the group for a “good job” but remained cautious about the findings. “The effect was greater in volunteers who were familiar with the facial reactions hypothesis and who rated their posed expressions as real,” he says.
While psychologists found a significant effect in people unaware of the feedback hypothesis, Mansted found that volunteers seemed to infer how happy they were, at least in part, from cues that included facial expressions. “If he brings your attention to your face by asking you to show your facial expressions, these signals are likely to increase in prominence,” Manstead said.
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