Facial expressions & Emotions: Fake it and you will make it, it seems!

William James proposed that emotional experience is merely the perception of certain bodily changes—“we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble” (James, 1890, p. 1066).

When I first read this, I really didn’t agree that emotions can be a result of such superficial-level actions. However a study by Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin, and Sabine Stepper (1988) showed otherwise:

Subjects were asked to hold a pen with their teeth (unbenown to them, forcing their facial muscles into a smile-like position), with their lips (forcing their facial muscles into an angry-like position), or in their nondominant hand (allowing facial muscles to be neutral ie "the control"). Holding the pen in the specified ways, the subjects were then asked to evaluate the funniness of several cartoons by circling with the pen the appropriate number on a rating scale. The results showed that students holding the pen with their teeth (facilitating a smile) rated the cartoons the funniest, whereas students holding the pen with their lips (inhibiting a smile) found the cartoons less funny.

So why does it seem that muscle contractions of the face can affect our emotions? It’s not yet perfectly clear, but some researchers suggest that the movement of facial muscles may help regulate the temperature of blood flowing to the brain, altering the flow of neurotransmitters that influence feelings (Zajonc, Murphy, & Inglehart, 1989).


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