The theory of facial feedback: gestures that create emotions

The theory of facial feedback suggests that facial movements associated with a certain emotion can influence emotional experiences. It is one of the most representative theories in the psychological study of emotions and cognition, so it continues to be constantly discussed and experienced.

In this article we will see what is the theory of facial feedback, How it was defined and what were some of its experimental controls.

    Facial Feedback Theory Does Facial Movement Create Emotions?

    The relationship between cognition and affective experiences has been widely studied by psychology. Among other things, an attempt has been made to explain how emotions occur, how we make them conscious and what their function is both at the individual and social level.

    Some research in this area suggests that affective experiences occur after we cognitively process a stimulus associated with an emotion. In turn, the latter would generate a series of facial reactions, like a smile, which would reflect the emotion we are experiencing.

    However, facial feedback theory, or facial feedback theory, suggests that the opposite can happen as well: performing movements with the muscles of the face linked to a certain emotion, it has a significant impact on the way we experience it; even without the need for intermediate cognitive processing.

    This is called the facial “feedback” theory, precisely because it suggests that the activation of the facial muscles it can generate sensory feedback to the brain; question that ultimately allows us to experience and consciously process an emotion.

      Context and associated researchers

      Facial feedback theory has its antecedents in late 19th century theories, which prioritize the role of muscle activation with the subjective experience of emotions.

      These studies continue to the present day and have developed considerably since the 1960s, when theories of affectivity became particularly relevant in the social and cognitive sciences.

      In a collection on the background of facial feedback theory, Rojas (2016) reports that in 1962, American psychologist Silvan Tomkins propose that the sensory feedback carried out by the muscles of the face, and the sensations of the skin, can generate an emotional experience or state without the need for cognitive intercession. This represented the first major antecedent of facial feedback theory.

      Later, the theories of Tournages and Ellsworth were added, in 1979, which spoke of the hypothesis of emotional modulation mediated by proprioception, which is another of the great antecedents of the definition of this theory. From the same decade the work of Paul Ekman and Harrieh Oster is also recognized on emotions and facial expressions.

      Between the 80s and 90s, many other researchers followed, who conducted numerous experiments to see if muscle movements can actually activate certain emotional experiences. We will expand on some of the more recent ones below, along with the theoretical updates that come from them.

      The supported pen paradigm

      In 1988, Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin, and Sabine Stepper conducted a study in which participants were asked to observe a series of funny cartoons. Meanwhile, some of them were asked to hold a pen with their lips. We asked others the same thing, but with their teeth.

      The previous request had a reason: the facial posture which is performed by holding a pen between the teeth it contracts the zygomatic major muscle, which we use to smile, Which promotes the expression of the smiling face. In contrast, the facial movement performed with the pen between the lips contracts the orbicularis muscle, which inhibits the muscle activity needed to smile.

      In this way, the researchers measured the facial activity associated with smiling and wanted to see if the subjective experience of joy was related to this activity. The result was that the people who were holding the pen with their teeth report that cartoons were more fun than those people who held the pen with their lips.

      The conclusion was that facial expressions associated with a certain emotion can effectively transform the subjective experience of that emotion; even when people are not fully aware of the facial gestures they are making.

      Is facial feedback inhibited when we are observed?

      In 2016, almost three decades after the Strack experiment, Martin and Stepper, the psychologist and mathematician Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, with his collaborators, reproduced the sustained experiment of the pen.

      To everyone’s surprise, they couldn’t find enough evidence to support the effect of facial feedback. In response, Fritz Strack explained that the Wagenmakers experiment was conducted with a variable that was not present in the original study, which surely affected and determined the new results.

      This variable was a video camera that recorded the activity of each of the participants. According to Strack, the experience of feeling watched caused by the video camera significantly altered the effect of facial feedback.

      The effect of external observation on affective experience

      Faced with the above controversy, Tom Noah, Yaacov Schul, and Ruth Maig (2018) replicated the study again, using a camera first and then omitting its use. As part of their conclusions, they propose that, far from being exclusive, the studies of Strack and Wagenmakers they are consistent with the theories that explain how the observed feeling affects internal signals related to the most basic activity; in this case with facial feedback.

      In their research, they found that the effect of facial feedback is noticeable when there is no electronic recording device (Consequently, the participants are not concerned by the follow-up of their activity).

      In contrast, the effect diminishes when participants know they are being monitored using the video camera. The inhibition of the effect is explained as follows: the experience of the observed sensation it generates the need to adjust external expectations, For which internal information is not available or not prepared.

      Thus, Noah, Schul and May (2018) concluded that the presence of the camera led the participants to take the position of a third point of view on the situation, and therefore, generated less alignment to the feedback. facial expression of their own muscles.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Noah, T., Schul, Y. and Mayo, R. (2018). When the original study and its failed replication are correct: the observed sensation eliminates the effect of facial feedback. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (114) 5: 657-664.
      • Rojas, S. (2016). Facial feedback and its effect on the evaluation of humorous advertising. Final diploma project. Psychology Program, University of the Rosary, Bogota, Colombia.
      • Wagenmakers, EJ., Beek, T., Dijkhoff, L., Gronau, QF, Acosta, A., Adams, RB, Jr., … Zwaan, RA (2016). Recorded replication report: Strack, Martin and Stepper (1988). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 917-928.
      • Strack, F., Martin, LL. and Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibitory and Facilitating Conditions of Human Smile: A Non-intrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54 (5): 7688-777.
      • Ekman, P. and Oster, H. (1979). Facial expressions of emotion. Annual Journal of Psychology, 30: 527-554.

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