This oft used rebuke, uttered by moms everywhere, is typically directed toward crabby toddlers, sullen teens, and the occasional discontented failed-to-launch 29-year-old. We all know that the implied consequence of having one’s face freeze like that is to remain perpetually in a bad mood; a mood that will plague us for the rest of our natural lives and that will make ourselves and everyone around us miserable. Generally, this is not something that one considers to be a good thing.
And of course, the moms are right. We should avoid getting into a habit of being in an unpleasant mood and expressing the sour face that goes along with it. That is the naturally accepted sequence: “I feel unhappy, so I frown. I feel happy, so I smile“. And generally, this is true. However, there is new research suggesting that this sequence can also be reversed. Learning more about this research, I realized that it could impact how we view some of the training techniques that we use when working with dogs.
These studies suggest that the physical attributes of emotional states and emotionally charged gestures can influence and can even cause the internal experience of the emotional state. In other words, while we traditionally have believed the sequence to be “I feel happy; therefore I smile”, there is evidence showing that the opposite sequence of “I smile, then I feel happy” also applies and may even dominate in some circumstances. Here are two studies, conducted with human subjects, that illustrate this:
The first study (1) examined the effects of physically inducing a smile or a frown in the absence of an attendant emotional event. Participants were divided into three groups and were given a pencil to hold while completing a simple task. Group 1 was instructed to hold the pencil in their teeth, which activates the muscles used in smiling; Group 2 was instructed to hold the pencil with their lips, which causes muscular changes associated with a frown, and Group 3 (the control group), held the pencil in their hand. As you can see (below) this pencil-holding technique is quite effective at causing facial expressions associated with a either a smile or a frown. (It is important to keep in mind that the study participants had no inkling that these facial manipulations were activated or that they caused smiles versus frowns).
POSITIVE NEUTRAL (CONTROL) NEGATIVE
The essay described a man (George) who was refusing to pay his rent because his landlord had not made promised repairs. After gesturing as they read, participants completed a questionnaire in which they rated George’s behavior. Once again, contrived body gestures significantly influenced individuals’ emotions and perceptions. People in the “thumbs-up” group rated George significantly more favorably than did people in the neutral group or the negative emotion group, and people who were “flippin’ the bird” while reading, rated George very critically. In other words, their perceptions of the same individual in the same circumstances were influenced by manipulating seemingly unrelated, but emotionally-charged gestures. Manipulations that were associated with positive social emotions (“thumbs up”; way to go!) appeared to put people in a generous and friendly state of mind (George is a good guy; he was forced to behave badly by a difficult situation). Conversely, causing people to make a gesture that is (in US culture) associated with very negative social emotions and that generally does not lead to good feelings among folks, caused people to be more judgmental and critical of another (What a slacker and low-life that George was; he should have paid his rent like a responsible adult). Most amazing? The folks in each group were completely unaware that their emotional states had been influenced prior to voicing their opinions of George.
So, what the heck does this have to do with dog training? After all, these are studies with human subjects, not with dogs. True. But, as dog trainers, we manipulate dogs both physically and emotionally when we train them and modify their behaviors. (Actually, that is what training is). In Part 2 of this topic, we will explore how this research might apply to a specific technique that many of us use regularly in dog training and how we might conduct a study to scientifically test these theories with dogs (i.e. that important evidence part).
1. Strack F, Martin LL, Stepper S. Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. J Pers Soc 1988;54:768-77.
2. Chandler J, Schwarz N. How extending your middle finger affects your perception of others: Learned movements influence concept accessibility, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2009;45:123-128.