Facial Feedback Hypothesis

DEC 5, 2020

For long it was believed that facial expressions are a reflection of one's emotional state. However, the Facial Feedback Hypothesis makes a case for the opposite. It highlights the role that facial expressions play in influencing emotions.

The hypothesis finds its roots in the propositions made by the evolutionary biologist - Charles Darwin, and psychologist - William James. Darwin posited that when an emotion is expressed, it tends to intensify, whereas when it is repressed, it tends to soften. William James - one half of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion, believed that the physiological reaction to an arousal inducing event is what we call emotion. While both Darwin and James arrived at this juncture from different angles, they both agree that physiological states exert some influence over emotions. This also implies that the cognitive appraisal of a situation cannot result in an emotion, by itself.

Over the years, research on the theory branched into two directions. Along Darwin's lines, the Weak version was developed. This stated that facial expressions have a weak and limited effect on influencing emotional states. They may help intensify an emotion but they have little power over inducing an emotion. Moreover, research on participants with facial paralysis revealed that there weren't any significant differences in emotional experiences between participants who could move their facial muscles and those who couldn't. On the other hand, James' theory branched out into the Strong version, which not only states that emotional experiences are strongly influenced by facial expressions, but also ascribes the latter the power to induce an emotion. In a study, participants were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth or between their mouth. The first would resemble a smile while the other would be akin to a frown. They were then exposed to humorous cartoons and it was observed that those with the pencil between their teeth (mimicking a smile) found the cartoons funnier than those mimicking a frown. However, when the experiment was replicated, it failed to obtain the same results.

Overall, the weak version of the theory has garnered more support over the years than the strong version. However, it is difficult to arrive at any conclusions with regard to the theory, considering the fact that it is difficult to hide the purpose of the study from the participants in an attempt to avoid bias.

Nevertheless, the weak version still enjoys considerable support and some explanations have been put forth to back the facial feedback theory. One of them explains the hypothesis by stating that each muscular contraction is labelled as a particular emotion. Therefore, physically manifesting a smile makes our brain fill in the blanks and intensifies the associated emotion. This is also referred to as the Self-Perception Mechanism. However, this explanation only applies to those emotions wherein the link between the specific facial expression and the emotion is clear. In the absence of such clarity, perception is hindered and so should the feedback.

Strictly physiological explanations have also been offered in favour of the hypothesis. It suggests that specific muscle contractions regulate the temperature and flow of blood to the brain I'm specific ways. This in turn results in the expressions influencing specific emotions. In addition to this, another explanation highlights the role that cortical activity plays in providing feedback. A specific contraction results in specific cortical activity that is in turn connected to a specific emotion.

The theory has also been expanded in its scope, to fit in more than just facial expressions. The Peripheral Feedback Effect takes into account the influence that bodily postures and voice tones have on emotions.

All in all, the facial feedback hypothesis may not have strong empirical backing but it has received significant support due to its ability to represent the otherwise unexplainable nuances in human emotions.