Which Comes First: Facial Expressions, or Feelings?

Smile, and the world smiles with you. And only by smiling with you, will it understand that you are happy.

That’s according to the facial feedback hypothesis, which proposes that our facial expressions aren’t reflections of our emotions, they actually enhance – or even create – emotions.

You might think that first you feel joy, and then you smile, but you’ve probably also heard the advice to smile all the time, to improve your mood. That goes along with scientific evidence that we might smile first, and only by smiling feel happy.

The classic piece of evidence for this involves a pencil. Some people were told to hold the pencil with their lips, which made them frown, while others held the pencil with their teeth, which made them smile. Most critically, these smiles were Duchenne smiles, which creates crinkles around the eyes.

Photo from European Workgroup for Manual Medicine.

These people were told that they were in a study trying out alternatives to holding pencils in the hand (for potential use by people with physical challenges), and they would be asked to do some fine-motor tasks like marking points on a 10-point scale. What they were marking, though, was whether a series of four cartoons were funny or not. People holding the pencil the boring way, with their hand, thought the cartoons merited a 5.8 out of 10…but people holding the pencil with their lips (frowning) only thought they were worth a 5.3, and people holding the pencil with their teeth (smiling) thought they merited a 6.1.

But, it’s not just your own emotions that can be influenced by holding a pencil in your mouth; it’s also your understanding of other people’s emotions, your empathy. We automatically, unconsciously imitate other people’s facial expressions (thanks to a specialized collection of cells known as mirror neurons). Just like our facial expressions contribute to our own feelings, they help us understand others’: First we imitate, then we empathize.

The evidence for this also uses a pencil in the mouth, but with a different goal in mind: Instead of trying to create a smile or a frown, researchers wanted people’s facial expressions to be simply locked into place. This time the pencil is not a writing instrument, and is held horizontally between the teeth so it’s difficult to have any facial expression.

Photo from Mentrepeneurs.com

This time people were told the real reason they were holding the pen, to prevent facial movements (and they were allowed to keep the pen afterwards…small wonder). While they did this, they watched a video of a woman’s facial expression morphing from happy to sad, or from sad to happy, and were told to press a button the moment they saw the emotion change. Holding the pen in the mouth, and freezing the facial muscles, cost about 4 movie frames in recognizing the change. It might not sound like much (most movies are 24 to 30 frames per second, so this is a small fraction of a second slower to recognize an emotion), but it’s enough to show that our facial expression does help us recognize others’ emotions.

Now, you probably aren’t planning to go around holding a pencil in your mouth, for either the smile-and-get-emotional-boost or freeze-facial-muscles-and-freeze-empathy purposes, and doing so wouldn’t exactly make you emotionally blind. But as a society we’ve seen the rise of anti-wrinkle Botox, which may have similar detrimental effect on empathy: Women who had received a Botox injection in the past two weeks were only 70% accurate at reading the mind in the eyes, while women who received Restylane (which does not freeze facial muscles) were 77% accurate.

It’s important to note that freezing the face with Botox or a pencil doesn’t completely eradicate our empathy. Mimicking others’ facial expressions helps, but it isn’t the whole story. People with Moebius syndrome, in which facial nerves are damaged so no facial expression is possible,  show no difficulties recognizing emotions, only in expressing their empathy to others. There are other non-verbal behaviors we can use to gauge what someone else is feeling.

Still, all this research gives me a reason not to keep a straight face when dealing with students, or prospective employers. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I struggle enough with knowing what other people are feeling; I need all the help my facial feedback can provide.


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