What Is The Facial-Feedback Hypothesis, & Does It Work?

By Julia Thomas

Updated February 13, 2020

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

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Emotions are a very basic part of the human experience, and expressing those emotions appropriately is a part of good mental health. We can show our emotions in many ways, but the quickest and most common way is through facial expressions. As it turns out, facial expressions may do more than showing others how we feel. Scientists have proposed the facial feedback hypothesis, suggesting that changing our facial expressions can also change our emotions.

Definition Of The Facial Feedback Hypothesis

The facial feedback hypothesis states that our facial expressions affect our emotions. If the facial-feedback hypothesis is correct, then not only do we smile when we feel happy but smiling can make us feel happy, too, even when we start out feeling sad. In these cases, it is the act of smiling that produces the happy feeling. The same might hold true for other emotions as well.

Background Of The Hypothesis

Scientists have been interested in the idea of a facial-feedback hypothesis since the 1800s at least. In the 1840s, William James presented the idea that awareness of your bodily experiences is the basis of emotion. Thus, if you know your facial expressions are the ones you associate with being sad, you experience the feeling of sadness.

Darwin investigated the way animals used facial expressions and suggested the idea of facial feedback in the 1870s. Through the latter half of the 1900s, the topic of facial feedback became popular again. Since then, many different studies have been done to test this hypothesis.

Types Of Facial Expressions

What types of facial expressions may produce the emotions we feel? The scientific community is still debating how the facial feedback hypothesis would work with different expressions. One thing that seems certain, though, is that a smile produces a happy emotion, while a frown produces sadness.

Basic Emotions

Humans have six basic emotions:

  • Happiness
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Fear

Degrees Of Emotions

Along with the type of emotion we feel, we can also show the degree of that emotion through our facial expressions. For example, you may be slightly angry. You might express that emotion with a slight frown and furrowed eyebrows. If you're furious, though, your expressions will likely be much more distinctive.

Complex Emotions

Often, we may feel combinations of emotions. Emotions aren't always pure or easily defined. Some common complex emotions are joyful love, prideful anger, and ambivalence. Complex emotions can be expressed with subtle variations of the usual facial expressions.

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Duchenne vs. Non-Duchenne Smiles

A Duchenne smile is a genuine smile, while a non-Duchenne smile is a fake smile. Although these two types of smiles are differentiated by whether the smile expresses an honest emotion you're feeling, you can make either expression whether you're already feeling happy or not.

In the non-Duchenne smile, you simply raise the corners of your mouth. It's what you might do when someone is going to take a photograph of you. They say, 'Say cheese,' and you comply with a non-Duchenne smile.

The Duchenne smile starts with that same facial contraction, but it also involves raising your cheeks and squeezing your eyes to make crow's feet. Your involuntary muscles do the extra work here. So, how can you produce a Duchenne smile if you can't actively control those muscles? If we know what a Duchenne smile looks like, most of us can produce the same expression.

In a 2009 study, participants were asked to smile the same way as a person in a photo. They looked at people showing non-Duchenne smiles, and of course, they could imitate them. Surprisingly, 69% of them could imitate the 'genuine' Duchenne smile just as well.

Individual And Cultural Differences

Although all humans share many of the same basic facial expressions, some expressions are unique to a specific individual or culture. So, if you know the person or culture well, it's easier to understand what someone is expressing through facial expressions.

How The Facial Muscles Express Emotions

We express emotions in our bodies, and especially by using our facial muscles in specific ways. Why do we do it? And, how do we know how to hold our faces to show our emotions. The answers are both biological and cultural.

Facial Expressions Are Hardwired In The Brain

It seems that our brains are hardwired to use the facial muscles in specific ways to show our emotions. Scientists suggest that this developed because people needed to live in groups to survive. This neurological phenomenon happens not only in people who can see and imitate the expressions of others but also in people who were born blind.

Facial Expressions Are Both Instinctual And Learned

Our expressions are instinctual, but they're also learned from others. Did you ever notice a child's smile that looked identical to the parent's smile? That can happen not only between biological parents and children but also between parents and their adopted children. It's because they imitate their parent's expressions.

Along with imitating our parents and close relatives, we watch others in our culture to learn how to express our emotions. We may meet these others in person, watch them on a television show or YouTube video, or see their expression in a photo. When we do, we instinctually understand what they're expressing, and we can learn to express that emotion in the same way.

Which Comes First: The Expression Or The Feeling?

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We usually think it's our emotions that determine our facial expressions. However, the facial-feedback hypothesis assumes that expression can work in the opposite direction. That is, the way we contract our facial muscles may generate emotional feelings within us. The question of whether that happens is still the subject of research studies.

What Happens When You Suppress Facial Expressions?

A different application of the facial feedback hypothesis was presented in 2010 in the paper on modulating emotional experience. In this case, researchers wanted to know whether you would have a lesser emotional response when you avoided displaying facial expressions that would express your emotions. The study's authors concluded that when people don't express their emotions with their facial muscles, they don't feel the emotions as strongly.

What Does the Facial-Feedback Hypothesis Mean To Me?

The question of how our expressions influence our emotions is a fascinating one, but does its answer have any practical applications? If the facial-feedback hypothesis is true, as research up to the present seems to indicate, there are several ways to take advantage of the phenomenon.

Enjoy Life More

Do you ever find yourself in a situation you'd rather avoid? Perhaps you have to be in class or at work when you'd rather be outside enjoying a beautiful spring day. Maybe you need to interact socially to advance your career or promote your favorite cause, but you'd rather spend the time alone.

If you apply the facial feedback hypothesis in these situations, you might find that you enjoy your time even if you're doing something you'd rather not do. As you smile, happy feelings may follow, allowing you to enjoy these moments wherever you are.

Avoid Negative Emotions More Often

If you agree with how facial feedback can also cause negative emotions, you now know how to feel those emotions less often or less strongly. If you don't want to feel unhappy, avoid frowning. If you don't want to feel angry, stop clenching your teeth. If the theory is correct, unpleasant feelings will be far less troublesome.

Have More Control Over Emotions

You may want to acknowledge your present feelings without wholly giving in to them. You may be able to control distressing emotions. Good emotional control is a sign of good mental health. That doesn't mean you never show emotions spontaneously. It does mean that you have other options when you need them.

If your emotions make you feel overwhelmed and powerless, facial feedback may help. You can learn that technique from a counselor during therapy. Another advantage of going into counseling is that you not only have the opportunity to learn new techniques for changing your emotions directly, but you can also explore the issues behind those emotions and solve any underlying problems.

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Online therapy is available now at BetterHelp.com. When you choose online counseling, you can work with a licensed counselor that you choose among hundreds of counselors available on this one-of-a-kind counseling platform. You can select a therapist that deals with the same types of emotional problems you're facing, whether you're troubled by excessive anger, sadness, or anxiety.

You can also choose a counselor for the type of therapy they offer, whether cognitive behavioral therapy, existential therapy, or dialectical behavior therapy. Their specialties, experience, and educational backgrounds are available for you to read and assess before you set up your first appointment.

Learning how to control your emotions more positively can change the way you feel, the ways others respond to you, and the way you live your life every day. If you're ready to claim this power, you can begin by finding out more about the facial feedback hypothesis and how you can apply it in your own life. When you begin to experience the changes you can create through your facial expressions and other techniques your therapist teaches you, you may find your life much easier and more manageable.


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