The facial feedback hypothesis goes against the widely accepted proposition that a stimulus leads to physiological arousal which in turn makes us express and emote. Psychologists believe that every individual undergoes an emotional experience explained by how the three components—arousal (heart racing), cognitions (thoughts, explanations), and expressive behavior (smiles, frowns, tears)—react to each other.
Different Theories on Experiencing Emotions
There is a widespread agreement that emotions consist of all three components. But there’s less consensus on how these different components work together to lead to emotions.
While the James-Lange theory identifies the stimulus as the guiding factor in physiological arousal and the eventual experience of an emotion, the Cannon-Bard theory proposes that physiological arousal and emotional experience happen simultaneously.
Another theory, often called the two-factor theory, builds upon the awareness that emotion is determined by a combination of our physiological response and cues from the environment we’re in
Each of the three models I’ve talked about so far differs in how they describe the various possible roles arousal and interpretation play in determining emotions.
Facial Feedback Hypothesis
It must be noticed that all three of these models propose that we experience some kind of stimulus, which leads to physiological arousal and emotion. But there’s another model describing the experience of emotion that proposes the reverse.
Adopting a particular facial expression or body posture can actually create, or at least intensify, the experience of a particular emotion. This model is known as the facial feedback hypothesis.
In one of the first tests of this hypothesis in 1988, researchers asked people to rate some cartoons while holding a pen between their teeth. Some people were told to hold the pen so that their faces held a neutral expression; others were told to smile.
In line with their predictions, people holding a smile rated the cartoons as funnier than those holding a neutral expression.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Behavioral Pattern Leading to Arousal
This seems like a pretty incredible finding; how in the world could simply holding a smile lead to changes in emotions? And remember, this finding pretty much reverses part of the original view by William James that arousal and behavior lead to emotions: We are sorry because we cry, we are afraid because we tremble, and so on. Instead, this approach describes our mere behaviors as creating arousal.
According to these researchers, our facial expressions send a signal to our autonomic nervous system, which then responds accordingly, changing our heart rates and body temperature. So, in this way, expressing emotion on our faces, even if we aren’t really feeling that emotion at the time, can actually lead us to feel that emotion.
This is also why power posing may give you a feeling of being more powerful. Or, as a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, writes, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
Findings from Further Studies
Although follow-up studies suggested these effects may be relatively small, some researchers went on to record even more impressive results.
In one such study, researchers asked people to keep chopsticks in their mouths while holding one of three facial expressions: a genuine smile, the type that you automatically make when you find something funny that includes muscles around the eyes; a fake smile, the type that you make using only your cheeks when posing for a photo; or a neutral expression.
Then, while holding their assigned facial expression, participants were asked to undergo a standard “pretty painful” task often used in psychology experiments—to hold one hand in a bucket of freezing-cold ice water.
The researchers then measured heart rates during this task as a way to determine how stressful the experience was. Interestingly, people who were holding either genuine or fake smiles had lower heart rates, showing that their bodies were feeling less pain.
Facial Expressions Influence Emotions
This finding that our facial expressions influence the emotions we feel is also supported by some fascinating research on a potentially unintended side effect of drugs that inhibit people’s ability to show certain facial expressions.
For example, the drug Botox is commonly used to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Injections of this drug into the forehead relaxes frown lines that increase naturally with age and may therefore produce a more youthful appearance.
But some evidence from a study published in 2011 also suggests that people who receive Botox injections, which inhibit their ability to hold certain facial expressions, have more trouble understanding what other people are feeling. When they’re given photographs or shown videos of people and asked to identify the emotions those other people are feeling, people who’ve received Botox injections are less accurate.
This is a fascinating finding suggesting that our ability to understand others’ emotions is based partly on mirroring their emotions on our own faces. Moreover, the facial feedback hypothesis also suggests that an inability to move our facial muscles can even reduce our ability to recognize our own feelings. So, our physiological arousal, our thoughts, even our facial expressions, and other expressive behavior, all influence the experience of emotions
Common Questions about the Facial Feedback Hypothesis
The facial feedback hypothesis proposes that adopting a particular facial expression or body posture can actually create, or at least intensify, the experience of a particular emotion. It suggests that expressing emotion on our faces, even if we aren’t really feeling that emotion at the time, can actually lead us to feel that emotion.
Our physiological arousal, our thoughts, even our facial expressions, and other expressive behavior, all influence the experience of emotions.
According to researchers, our facial expressions send a signal to our autonomic nervous system, which then responds accordingly, changing our heart rates and body temperature. Hence, what we express becomes how we begin to feel and experience.