Facial Feedback Theory

Facial expressions show the emotions that may be developing inside each individual. However, if we adopted these expressions to simulate our emotions, would there be changes in our moods?
Facial Feedback Theory
Cristian Muñoz Escobar

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristian Muñoz Escobar.

Last update: 30 June, 2024

Our emotions have multiple ways of manifesting themselves through corporeality, especially when it comes to the expressions on our faces. The facial feedback theory states that the brain receives sensory information through the activation of facial muscles, causing emotional experiences in the individual.

It’s normal for our feelings, when cognitively processed, to generate stimuli linked to emotions. As a result, our faces adopt corresponding expressions.

However, the facial feedback theory proposes that an expression can also generate its corresponding emotion. We’re going to talk about this unique phenomenon and how our facial expressions generate emotions without the participation of external stimuli.

A brief history of the facial feedback theory

In 1873, Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, emphasizing the adaptive role of emotions. He was a forerunner of the disciplines of ethology and psychology. In fact, he was the first to use empirical observation in the study of emotions, supported by the scientific method.

Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, the study of emotions and their relationship to facial movements was revived by Tomkins, Plutchik, Ekman, and Izard. These researchers intended to confirm Darwin’s theoretical postulates, and even go beyond them.

The expression of emotions is innate. They represent a basic aspect of our social and cultural adaptation. Currently, six basic emotions are universally recognized:

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

Feelings occur when we cognitively process a stimulus, linked to an emotion, producing facial reactions. However, the facial feedback theory, put forward by Tomkins (1962) proposes that facial movements may generate direct sensory feedback to the brain.

According to this theory, the facial muscles can make us experience the emotion that the face adopts or simulates. Is this possible?

African American woman smiles at sunset
The facial feedback theory states that the reaction of the facial muscles corresponds to the emotions.

Do facial muscles generate feelings?

According to the facial feedback theory, facial muscles do generate feelings. Indeed, the close relationship between cognition and emotions is undeniable. For instance, the latter can significantly condition the former, just as the cognitive helps to regulate our emotional worlds.

When facial feedback occurs, the muscles of the face create emotional states without cognition intervening. In fact, hypotheses like those of Tourangeau and Ellsworth, in 1979, suggest that emotional modulation is mediated by proprioception.

The psychologist, Carroll Izard proposed that the facial feedback theory can be explained in the following ways:

  1. One pathway is responsible for sending brain impulses to the facial muscles.
  2. Another pathway deals with feedback. As such, it returns the information coming from the muscles of the face to the brain. This would determine the emotional experience.

An experiment

In 1988, Fritz Strack conducted a study with Leonard Martin and Sabine Stepper. They asked a group of participants to hold a pen in their mouth in ways that either inhibited or facilitated the muscles typically associated with smiling. They were then asked to look at some funny cartoons. The participants exhibited more intense humor under the facilitating than the inhibiting conditions. Indeed, those who held a pen between their teeth, inducing a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than those who held a pen between their lips, inducing a frown.

According to this, the facial activity associated with smiling is directly linked to the musculature of the face. Therefore, a facial expression linked to an emotion can transform the subjective experience of the emotion, even though the individual is unaware of the fact.

An executive has a pencil between his teeth
Some researchers argue that facial feedback fits the context.

Mood and facial feedback theory

According to the previous study, facial expressions, associated with specific emotions, can make us change our points of view regarding our environments.

Let’s consider a particular scenario. If you adopt an optimistic posture with a smile, does it affect your view of your environment? Depending on what position your facial muscles adopt, it will to some extent, affect your mood and, therefore, how you perceive your environment.

One example of this can be seen in an experiment conducted by psychologist and mathematician, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers. He disapproves of the above experiment. In his study, he used a camera to record participants holding the pens, which didn’t occur in the Strack, Martin, and Stepper experiment. The result was that the facial feedback was not presented as clearly as in the previous experiment.

Subsequently, Tom Noah, Yaacov Schul, and Ruth Mayo repeated the study in two parts. In one, they used a camera and in the other, they didn’t. Facial feedback occurred when no electronic devices were recording, as the participants weren’t worried about being watched. In contrast, when the devices were present to record their activities, facial feedback didn’t appear. The researchers concluded that we adjust to the context, depending on whether we’re being observed or not.

Lastly, ask yourself, how aware are you of your facial expressions? Do you know how many muscles your face has?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Izard, Carroll E. (1979). The maximally discriminative facial movement coding system (MAX). Newar. Instructional Resources Center, University of Delaware.
  • Tourangeau, R. & Ellsworth, P. (1979). The role of facial response in the experience of emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37 (9), 1519–1531. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1981-00499-001
  • Real Academia Española. Propiocepción. https://dle.rae.es/propiocepci%C3%B3n?m=form
  • Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.54.5.768&utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https:%2F%2Fyandex.com%2Fnews

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.