Why Do People Mimic Facial Expressions?

Facial mimicry promotes empathy, experiential understanding


Have you ever noticed how seeing a friend laugh can cause you to laugh as well? New research suggests that people instinctually use facial mimicry as a mechanism to relate to their peers.

According to a press release issued by Cell Press--a leading publisher of biomedical research and reviews--a new review says that facial mimicry helps someone feel another's feelings. People often mimic others' faces without knowing it, an act which encourages empathy.

Paula Niedenthal and Adrienne Wood, social psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, described in their paper how a person in a social situation mimics the facial expressions of others in order to create an emotional response in him- or herself.

According to the press release, researchers say that by “trying on” another’s facial expression, a person can know what someone else is feeling by remembering the times he or she has made that face in the past. Extracting emotional meaning from facial expressions takes 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," Niedenthal said in the press release. "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."

The researchers say that people who can’t mimic faces have a hard time recognizing and sharing in other people’s emotions. An inability to mimic faces can be caused by many things, including long-term pacifier use, central or peripheral motor diseases—such as facial paralysis from a stroke or Bell's palsy—or nerve damage from plastic surgery.

People with social disorders that involve mimicry and/or emotion-recognition impairments—such as autism—experience similar disadvantages. Niedenthal explains in the press release:

"There are some symptoms in autism where lack of facial mimicry may in part be due to suppression of eye contact. It may be overstimulating socially to engage in eye contact, but under certain conditions, if you encourage eye contact, the benefit is spontaneous or automatic facial mimicry."

According to the press release, Niedenthal wants to explore what brain mechanism allows for facial expression recognition, the knowledge of which will help treat people with related disorders.

The full review was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

It was supported by the National Science Foundation.

The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.