Does smiling make you happy, or does being happy make you smile? The facial feedback hypothesis asserts facial expressions are not only the results of our emotions but are also capable of influencing our emotions. In other words, the act of smiling can itself actually make you feel happier. (Buck, 1980; Soussignan, 2001; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988).
The impact of facial expressions
According to the facial feedback hypothesis, facial expressions aren't simply caused by emotions—they can influence our emotions as well. Smiling more frequently over a period of time can, in fact, make you feel happier.
Research into the Facial Feedback Hypothesis
Research investigating the facial feedback hypothesis has found that suppressing facial expressions of emotion may decrease how intensely those emotions are experienced (Davis, Senghas, & Ochsner, 2009).
Recently, the use of Botox to temporarily paralyze facial muscles has also provided strong experimental support for some kind of facial-feedback mechanism involved in emotion. Havas, Glenberg, Gutowski, Lucarelli, and Davidson (2010) discovered that individuals with depression reported lessened depressive symptoms after paralysis of their frowning muscles with Botox injections. Findings from this and other studies suggest that facial feedback modulates the neural processing of emotional content.
In an attempt to objectively assess the facial feedback hypothesis, Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) devised an experiment that would hide their true goals from the participants. Participants were simply told that they were taking part in a study to determine the difficulty of accomplishing certain tasks for people who do not have the use of their hands or arms. To this end, participants held a pen in their mouth in one of three ways: the Lip position would contract the orbicularis oris muscle, resulting in a frown; the Teeth position would contract the zygomaticus major or the risorius muscle, resulting in a smile; and the control group would hold the pen in their non-dominant hand. All participants had to complete a questionnaire while holding the pen and rate the difficulty of doing so. The last task, which was the experiment's real object of interest, was for the participants to subjectively rate the the funniness of a cartoon. As predicted, participants in the Teeth condition (who were, technically, smiling throughout the exercise) reported significantly higher amusement ratings than those in the Lips condition. This outcome supported the facial feedback hypothesis.
Of course, emotion is displayed not only through facial expression but also through tone of voice and behavior. Specifically, body language is the expression of emotion through body position and movement. Research suggests that we are quite sensitive to the emotional information communicated through body language, even if we’re not consciously aware of it (de Gelder, 2006; Tamietto et al., 2009).
Autism and Emotional Expression
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with communication and social interaction. Children who have ASD have difficulty recognizing the emotional states of others; research has shown that this may stem from an inability to differentiate among various nonverbal expressions of emotion (e.g., facial expressions) (Hobson, 1986). There is also evidence that suggests that individuals with ASD have difficulty expressing their own emotion through tone of voice and facial expressions (Macdonald et al., 1989).
Difficulties with emotional recognition and expression may contribute to the impaired social interaction and communication that characterize ASD. Various therapeutic approaches have been explored to address these difficulties: different educational curricula, cognitive behavioral therapies, and pharmacological therapies have shown some promise in helping individuals with ASD to process emotionally relevant information (Bauminger, 2002; Golan & Baron-Cohen, 2006; Guastella et al., 2010).