Facial microexpressions change your emotions, but how?

“Smile and the world smiles with you,” Stanley Gordon West famously said. Most of us have experienced the influence a person’s mood can have on us whilst we are surrounded by friends or family. But why are people so easily influenced by the mood of others? Scientists may have the answer.

Two women talking at a coffee shop - an example of emotional mimickryMonkey Business Images | Shutterstock

"When we watch other people, for some reason, we're wired up to get in sync with them on so many things that it kind of boggles your mind ... And they calculate that it's so fast that you couldn't possibly do it consciously — it's got to be going through the brainstem," says Elaine Hatfield, a psychology researcher at the University of Hawaii.

The ways in which people sync with those around them are fairly obvious, such as mimicking posture or speaking patterns. However, others are less obvious. Two friends talking to one another may eventually start to blink in time with each other, for example, or if one person stutters, the other person’s tiny mouth muscles may start to twitch.

People even start to copy each other’s breathing pattern – members of a conference meeting will often start to breathe in sync with each other while they surround the table, for example.

"It's so wired in, and in the primitive parts of the brain, that animals do it. Even little birds imitate one another. It just happens. It just runs off like breathing," Hatfield says.

The emotional contagion phenomenon

However, it is not just people’s physical movements that we mimic, but also each other’s emotions. This phenomenon, referred to as emotional contagion, is an area Hatfield and colleagues specialize in.

Many researchers from a wide range of disciplines have used a variety of techniques to study the influence that attention, facial mimicry and social context has on emotional contagion.

In 2014, Hatfield and colleagues conducted a review of the evidence available on the role of attention, facial mimicry and feedback in triggering primitive emotional contagion. They also assessed the growing body of literature on the role of facial mimicry in fostering emotional contagion and the capacity to “read” the thoughts and emotions of those around us.

Hatfield and her husband, Richard Rapson, first began to acknowledge the concept of emotional contagion while working as therapists. One client who visited them was very animated and fast-talking, yet the couple found themselves yawning, despite neither of them feeling tired.

Rapson says he believes they were picking up on the fact that underneath the energetic talk, the client was depressed and that this was somehow being conveyed to them non-verbally. After researching this idea, Hatfield and Rapson found that emotions can indeed spill from a person’s face in the form of highly measurable and consistent ways referred to as microexpressions.

Microexpressions are universal and difficult to fake

Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions lasting only a fraction of a second that reflect how a person is feeling. Unlike more regular and prolonged expressions, microexpressions are difficult to fake.

Researcher Paul Ekman has established seven facial expressions that he believes are universal and easy to interpret, namely disgust, sadness, happiness, surprise, contempt, anger, and fear.

These expressions are common to individuals, irrespective of their culture or lifestyle. People in the US for example facially express sadness in the same way as indigenous people in PapaNew guinea who have never had the opportunity to model themselves on TV or movie characters, for example.

Ekman also found that people who have been blind since birth have the same facial expressions as people who are not blind, despite the blind people who have never been able to observe other people’s faces.

Microexpressions can determine our emotional responses

What Hatfield and Rapson added to the equation in 2014, is that automatic mimicry of such expressions can also trigger us to feel the corresponding emotion.

"We get real pale, little reflections of what others are thinking and feeling," says Hatfield. Those reflections can then have a real and tangible effect on how we think and feel within ourselves.

Hatfield and Rapson think the idea that we go about our lives thinking as individuals is an illusion; rather, we slip into becoming similar to the company we keep, they say. In other words, we are closely connected to the people we are with and “contract” their thoughts and feelings, almost like we would a virus.

Ekman’s seven designated universal facial microexpressions

Descriptions of the seven universal microexpressions established by Ekman are given below:

Surprise:

  • Raised and curved eyebrows
  • Stretched skin below the brow
  • Eyelids open with the sclera showing above and below
  • Horizontal forehead wrinkles
  • Dropped jaw with teeth parted, but not a tensed or stretched mouth

Fear:

  • Raised, drawn together eyebrows
  • Forehead wrinkled between the eyebrows
  • Raised upper eyelid, but tense and drawn up lower eyelid
  • Open mouth with lips slightly tensed or stretched
  • Upper, but not lower white of eye showing

Disgust:

  • Raised upper eyelid
  • Raised cheeks
  • Raised lower lip
  • Wrinkled nose
  • Lines below the lower eyelid

Anger:

  • Lowered and drawn together eyebrows
  • Tensed lower eyelid
  • Firmly pressed together lips, shaped downwards at the corners or lips in a square-like shape, if shouting
  • Vertical lines between eyebrows
  • Staring or bulging eyes
  • Dilated nostrils
  • Lower jaw jutting out

Happiness:

  • Lips drawn back and up at the corners
  • A wrinkle running between nose and lip
  • Raised cheeks
  • Mouth may or may not be parted and exposing teeth
  • Wrinkled or tensed lower eyelid
  • Crow’s feet around eyes

Sadness:

  • Eyebrows drawn in and up at the inner corners
  • Raised jaw
  • Pouting lower lip
  • Triangulated skin below the eyebrows
  • Lips drawn down at the corners

Contempt:

  • Mouth raised to one side
Source:
Journal reference:

Hatfield, E., et al. (2014). New Perspectives on Emotional Contagion: A Review of Classic and Recent Research on Facial Mimicry and Contagion. Interpersona. https://interpersona.psychopen.eu/article/view/162/html

Sally Robertson

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Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.

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