What Is The Facial Feedback Hypothesis And Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Emotions are a basic part of the human experience, and can be communicated in a number of ways. Facial expressions, however, are among the most primal, often occurring even without conscious effort. The facial feedback hypothesis is an intriguing concept suggesting that facial expressions can not only communicate emotions but can also influence our feelings.

Here, we’ll explore the facial feedback hypothesis, delve into some research about facial expressions, and answer some common questions about this fascinating hypothesis.

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Learn about the facial feedback hypothesis

What is 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. According to this hypothesis, in these cases, it is the act of smiling that produces a 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. Charles Darwin studied the way animals used facial expressions and suggested the idea of facial feedback in the 1870s. In 1982, William James presented the idea that awareness of your bodily experiences is the basis of emotion. 

Through the latter half of the 1900s, the topic of facial feedback became popular again. Since then, many different studies have tested this hypothesis.

Types of facial expressions

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

Basic emotions

It is widely accepted and understood that 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 and 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.


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. Your involuntary muscles do the extra work. 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 2019 study, scientists carried out two experiments around Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiling. One evaluated how ostracism influenced the expression of emotion in a social environment, while the second replicated the results of the first experiment but focused particularly on smiling and self-reported emotion.

In the first experiment, the participants who had higher frequencies of Duchenne smiling even during exclusion from the conversation self-reported higher rates of happiness. In the second, the relationship between non-Duchenne smiling and self-reported happiness was negative. However, certain participants were able to control their own emotional experience even while being ostracized, which led to an unexpected up-regulation of positive emotions.

Individual and cultural differences

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

How the facial muscles express emotions

We often express emotions in our bodies, especially by using our facial muscles in specific ways. Why do we do it? 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

Scientists believe that our brains are hardwired to use the facial muscles in specific ways to show our emotions. They 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 we can also learn them from others. Did you ever notice a child's smile that looked identical to a 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 tend to imitate their parents’ expressions.

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

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Learn about the facial feedback hypothesis

Which comes first: The expression or the feeling?

We tend to think it's our emotions that determine our facial expressions. However, the facial-feedback hypothesis states 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 does the facial-feedback hypothesis mean to me?

How our expressions influence our emotions may pose some interesting questions, but does it have any practical applications? If the facial-feedback hypothesis is true, as research up to the present seems to indicate, there may be several ways to take advantage of the phenomenon. Researchers have found that facial feedback appears to happen during the movement of facial muscles to create expressions, which attenuates ongoing feelings and emotions.

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 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 facial feedback can also cause negative emotions, you may be able to mitigate these feelings or feel them less frequently. If you don't want to feel unhappy, you may try to avoid frowning. If you don’t want to feel angry, you may decide to stop clenching your teeth and decide to modify your expression. If the theory is correct, unpleasant feelings may be far less troublesome.

Have more understanding and control over emotions

It can be healthy and mature to acknowledge your present feelings without wholly giving in to them. You may be able to control distressing emotions, which can improve your mental health. That doesn't mean you never show emotions spontaneously, but you have other options when you need them.

If your emotions sometimes make you feel overwhelmed, facial feedback may help. You can learn valuable techniques from a counselor during online therapy. Aside from teaching you new techniques for controlling your emotions, therapy may help you explore the issues behind those emotions and address any underlying problems.

Online therapy can support you

If you’re thinking about your next steps, online therapy may help you explore your concerns under the guidance of an experienced, licensed counselor. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that online therapy was equally as effective as traditional in-person counseling; 80% of the trials conducted on computer-delivered therapy sessions saw more than half of the participants showing high rates of satisfaction.

When you choose online counseling, you can work with a licensed counselor that you choose among thousands of counselors. You can select a therapist who addresses the same types of emotional challenges you're facing, whether you're experiencing anger, sadness, anxiety, or another emotion.

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 may help change the way you feel, the ways others respond to you, and the way you live your life every day. If you're thinking about new ways to approach emotional challenges, you might want to talk to a licensed therapist about the facial feedback hypothesis and how you can apply it in your everyday life. If you’re not yet sure about therapy but you simply have questions, reach out to BetterHelp to find out more today.

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