Date Thesis Awarded

4-2014

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Science (BS)

Department

Psychology

Advisor

Joanna Schug

Committee Member

Christopher Ball

Committee Member

Jaime Settle

Abstract

Spontaneous facial mimicry refers to the phenomenon of imitating emotional facial expressions that are seen in other people, without being explicitly told to do so. Deficits in the automatic component of spontaneous facial mimicry are often found in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, leading some researchers to believe that facial mimicry plays a causal role in empathy. The facial feedback hypothesis suggests that imitating the muscle configuration of another individual’s face activates neural circuits for underlying emotions associated with that expression. Previous studies have found an important role for attention, as well as a facilitating effect of affinity for the target individual, when predicting rates of facial mimicry. The goal of the current study was to investigate the effect of explicit motivation on rates of facial mimicry. Participants viewed a series of videos of Asian or Caucasian individuals expressing three emotional facial expressions, and for each the participants were primed beforehand with either the question "How old is this person?" or "How does this person feel?" which the participants answered after viewing the video clip. Facial mimicry, as measured using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), was found to occur significantly more often when participants were explicitly instructed to infer the target individual’s emotion. This suggests that they were using facial mimicry as a tool to understand emotions—supporting the facial-feedback hypothesis. Participant ethnicity did not have any effect, suggesting further evidence for the universality of facial mimicry and its utility. Participants mimicked Asian target faces to a greater degree than White target faces, which may be explained by a distinctiveness effect for minority faces.

KEYWORDS: facial expression, FACS, social cognition, emotion, empathy

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