What is the facial feedback hypothesis?

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The facial feedback theory of emotion concerns the relationship between emotional experience and facial expression. The theory argues that emotional experience (feelings) can be managed by producing different or opposite facial expressions. It also suggests that people do not experience emotions directly; instead, they infer or “read” their emotions from the expressions that appear on their faces.
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The purpose of facial expressions has been a topic of interest to writers, poets, philosophers, and social scientists for centuries. Some scientists have suggested that facial expressions are simply the external manifestations of internal emotional states (sometimes referred to as affective states); that is, they play a role in emotional expression. Others claim that facial expressions are designed to communicate information about how people are feeling to other people. Still others have argued that facial expressions are the data on which people base decisions about the emotions they themselves may be experiencing. This latter idea is the foundation of the facial feedback theories of emotion.

Facial Feedback Theories

In the early 1970s, psychologists first confirmed Charles Darwin’s speculations, advanced in the 1870s, that a set of basic human facial expressions is innate and constant across cultures. Since then, researchers have sought to understand the function and significance of facial expressions in the production and experience of emotion. This search has led to the formulation of theories about the role of facial expressions in emotional experience, of which the facial feedback theories are one subset. Although there are several variants of the central theme, all facial feedback theories share three defining characteristics. First, all hold that the experience of naturally occurring emotions (such as anger or fear) can be managed by producing different or opposite facial expressions. In other words, if a person feels sad and “puts on a happy face,” the experience of sadness will be reduced. Second, all these theories argue that in the absence of a naturally occurring emotion, self-generated facial expressions can produce their corresponding internal emotional states. In other words, even though a person may not feel sad, smiling will make that person feel happy. Finally, all the theories share a belief that internal emotional states are not experienced directly but are instead mediated by some sort of mechanism involving feedback from the skin or the muscles of the face (hence the term “feedback” in the name). Put simply, this means that the specific configuration of people’s facial muscles tells them that they are experiencing a particular emotion. If people’s faces display smiles, the particular arrangement of the muscles involved in smiling “tells” them that they are happy.

An example that was first offered by nineteenth-century psychologist William James may help clarify how facial (and other bodily) feedback is thought to lead to emotional experience. A woman encounters a growling bear in the woods. On noticing the bear, her heartbeat increases, her body secretes adrenaline (epinephrine), her face tenses in fear, and she runs away. Does she first notice she is afraid and then respond by fleeing from the bear, or does she flee first and then decide that she must have been afraid because she made a terrified facial expression? The latter idea explains the woman’s behavior in terms of a feedback theory of emotional experience.

Theoretical Variations

Because they seem to suggest a process that is at odds with most people’s intuitions, facial feedback theories have had a long and controversial history in social psychology. Their origins can be traced at least as far back as Darwin and James, and some social scientists have noted that the ideas embodied in facial feedback theories can be found in the writings of Homer and William Shakespeare. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin claimed that freely expressing an emotion would intensify its experience, whereas repressing or dampening the expression of an emotion would tend to reduce its effects. James echoed a similar idea in the second volume of The Principles of Psychology (1890). James’s ideas, coupled with similar ideas offered independently by Danish physician Carl Lange, led to one of the earliest feedback theories, the James-Lange theory. More recently, psychologist Silvan Tomkins and social psychologists Carroll Izard, James Laird, John Lanzetta, and their colleagues have each proposed similar theories implicating facial expressions in the experience of emotions. Although they all differ in regard to the exact mechanism through which facial expressions produce or manage emotional experiences, all are collectively referred to as facial feedback theories. For example, the idea that facial expressions are emotions (or that being aware of one’s facial expression is essentially the same as being aware of an emotion) is attributable to Tomkins. He argued that sensory receptors in the skin of the face provide information on the status of facial expressions that trigger emotional experiences from memory. The somewhat different idea that facial expressions are used (through self-perception processes) to infer an emotional state is based on the work of Laird. Laird argued that when people are unsure of what emotion they may be experiencing, they use attributional and self-perception processes to work backward, deciding that “if I am smiling, I must be happy.”


Numerous social psychological experiments have supported the role of facial expressions in the production and regulation of emotions as predicted by the facial feedback theories. One of the propositions of facial feedback theories is that in the presence of naturally occurring emotions such as disgust or delight, generating an opposite facial expression should have the effect of reducing the intensity of the original emotional experience. In contrast, exaggerating a spontaneous facial expression should have the effect of enhancing the intensity of the original emotional experience. Psychologist Robert Kraut examined this proposition in an experiment in which subjects sniffed a set of substances with characteristically unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant odors. Subjects then rated how pleasant each odor was. The substances Kraut used ranged from pyridine and butyric acid (both of which have a disgusting odor) through water (a neutral odor) to vanilla, wintergreen, and tangerine (all of which are very pleasant smelling to most people). In addition to smelling and rating the odors spontaneously, the subjects were sometimes instructed to pose a facial expression of delight or disgust when sniffing the odors, irrespective of the odor’s actual pleasantness. Kraut found a strong effect for posing the different facial expressions. Consistent with the first proposition of facial feedback theories, when subjects posed a delighted expression, they rated all the odors as more pleasant smelling than when they rated the odors after reacting to them spontaneously. In contrast, and consistent with the facial feedback hypothesis, when subjects posed a disgusted expression, they rated all the odors as less pleasant smelling than when they rated the odors after reacting to them spontaneously. The results of Kraut’s experiment suggest that the proverbial wisdom of “putting on a happy face” when a person feels sad may contain more than a little truth.

A second proposition of the facial feedback theories is that in the absence of naturally occurring emotions, generating a facial expression should have the effect of producing the corresponding emotional experience. In an early experiment, Laird examined just this proposition. He covertly manipulated college students’ facial muscles to produce a frown while attaching electrodes to their faces. In other words, as part of an experiment in which brain-wave recordings were supposedly being made, Laird told subjects to contract or relax various facial muscles. These instructions had the net effect of producing frowns without the subjects knowing that they were frowning. These subjects subsequently reported that they felt angry. Other students’ facial muscles were arranged into smiles. These subjects reported feeling happy and rated cartoons to be funnier than did control subjects. These studies have been criticized, however, because subjects might have been aware that their faces were being arranged into frowns and smiles and may have been responding to experimental demand characteristics.

In a different study, social psychologists Fritz Strack, Lenny Martin, and Sabina Stepper had subjects rate cartoons while holding pens in their mouths. Some of these subjects clenched the end of a pen in their teeth, which models the facial muscle actions of smiling. Other subjects pursed the end of a pen in their lips, which models the facial muscle actions of frowning. According to these psychologists, these tasks model smiling and frowning more subtly than did Laird’s manipulations. Consistent with facial feedback theory predictions, Strack and his colleagues found that the induced smilers rated the cartoons as being funnier than did the induced frowners.

Relationship to Biofeedback

Although facial feedback theories are concerned primarily with the effects of facial expressions on emotional experience, many of them acknowledge that facial expressions are not the only bodily cues that can produce or manage emotional experiences. For example, psychologists have found that people’s physical posture (slumping versus sitting erect) affected their performance on a task. Similarly, a number of studies have shown that biofeedback techniques can be used to reduce anxiety and stress. When using biofeedback, people concentrate their attention on some internal event, such as breathing rate, pulse rate, or heartbeat, and consciously try to manage the event. With practice, biofeedback techniques have produced some surprising results.

Perhaps one of the most exciting potential applications for facial feedback theories is in clinical therapy settings. Izard has suggested that manipulation of facial expression can be used in a manner similar to biofeedback to help people cope with and overcome adverse emotional responses to situations and events. Although this application has not yet been put to the test, it could well become an important technique for use with such psychological problems as phobias, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and depression.


Facial feedback theories of emotion are, as they have been since they were first suggested, surrounded by controversy. Facial feedback theories have received considerable attention from psychologists and psychophysiologists. They have attracted staunch supporters as well as vehement critics. Part of the controversy may be attributable to the theories’ counterintuitive nature; they seem to fly in the face of common sense. On the other hand, proverbial wisdom suggests that at least some aspects of facial feedback theories make intuitive sense. Another part of the controversy has resulted from the difficulty of demonstrating the phenomenon in the laboratory. Although numerous studies have supported the facial feedback hypothesis, many have also failed to support it. In fact, two summaries of research related to facial feedback theories reached opposite conclusions concerning how well the available research has actually supported the theories.

As facial feedback research continues, a number of questions about the role of facial expressions (and other bodily movements) in the production and regulation of emotional experience remain unanswered. For example, what is the exact mechanism through which facial (and bodily) expressions produce and regulate emotion? Is it sensory feedback from the facial muscles and skin, unmediated by thinking, that affects emotional experience, as James, Darwin, Tomkins, and Izard have suggested? Is it sensory feedback mediated by self-perception processes, as Laird has proposed? Is it caused by some other, as-yet-unspecified mechanism? These questions will be important focuses of future research on the facial feedback theories.

In addition, a number of newer approaches to and formulations of facial feedback theories have been offered. One of the most intriguing is psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues’ vascular theory of facial efference. According to this formulation, facial expressions produce their effects on emotion not through sensory feedback from the muscles and skin but through changes in the volume of blood that reaches the brain. Expanding on a model originally proposed by Israel Waynbaum at the beginning of the twentieth century, Zajonc proposes that the facial muscles regulate the amount of blood that reaches and helps cool the brain. He and his colleagues have shown, for example, that changes in brain temperature are related to changes in emotional experience and that changes in facial expressions affect brain temperature. This seemingly improbable theory has received some experimental support and promises to maintain interest in facial feedback theories. Along more practical lines, Izard’s suggestions for using facial feedback as a therapeutic tool may provide an alternative technique for managing specific psychological problems. Because of the interest in human self-regulatory mechanisms within social psychology, facial feedback theories and their successors will undoubtedly receive additional theoretical and empirical attention. The future holds considerable promise for advances in understanding the true relationship between facial expressions and the emotions they represent.


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