Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Why Smiles Are Contagious

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Why Smiles Are Contagious

Article excerpt

Smile! It makes everyone in the room feel better because they, consciously or unconsciously, are smiling with you. Growing evidence shows that an instinct for facial mimicry allows us to empathize with and even experience other people's feelings. If we can't mirror another person's face, it limits our ability to read and properly react to their expressions. A review of this emotional mirroring appears in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

In the study, social psychologists at the University of Wisconsin describe how people in social situations simulate others' facial expressions to create emotional responses in themselves. For example, if you're with a friend who looks sad, you might "try on" that sad face yourself--without realizing you're doing so. "Trying on" your friend's expression helps you to recognize what they're feeling by associating it with times in the past when you made that expression. Humans extract this emotional meaning from facial expressions in a matter of only a few hundred milliseconds.

"You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action--you approach the person or you avoid the person," says social psychologist Paula Niedenthal. "Your own emotional reaction to the face changes your perception of how you see the face in such a way that provides you more information about what it means. …

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