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Biology, Psychology, Uncategorized

Smiling: Placebo or Real Effect

There are certain things that I really care about a possible placebo effect versus actual benefits on (for an awesome review of the placebo effect check out this video by It’s Okay to be Smart). Anything that involves putting a foreign substance (medication, needles, etc) into my body, I don’t care if I might perceive benefit I don’t want to do it, particularly not if it costs money. Other things though, placebo or real I’ll take it. One of these is smiling. I had written about body language and hormones before and I’ve encouraged my students to adopt particular postures before writing exams or going into job interviews, so I was a little stressed when there were rumblings in 2016 that smiling doesn’t make people feel happier. I didn’t want this lack of positive result to be true because I personally will force myself to physically smile sometimes and almost always feel a positive effect on my emotions. Could I really be falling prey to the placebo effect?

But, I didn’t dwell on these negative results for long because, as I said, it did work for me. And whether that was because I thought smiling should make me happier (placebo) or because smiling actually did make me happier (actual effect) who am I to judge. Smiling costs me nothing, introduces no foreign materials to my body, and sometimes makes the people around me smile too. I’m not losing anything or risking losing anything by smiling.

At the same time though, I’m a science nerd. So I do like having data to back up decisions that I’m making. Therefore, I was pretty excited to see a meta-analysis on facial feedback (I said I was a nerd). Okay, so really what I was excited about was that Coles, Larsen, and Lench (2019) completed a meta-analysis of 138 studies that looked at how facial expressions impacted self-reports of emotions. They found that the results were small but significant: changing facial expressions will impact emotions. Results do, however, vary between people (what a surprise, people are diverse). So perhaps my results would be on the high end of that small effect but I will take it and continue to force myself to smile randomly while standing at my desk, on the train, walking through town, or writing a blog post.

Coles, N., Larsen, J., & Lench, H. (2019). A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable. Psychological Bulletin. DOI: 10.1037/bul0000194

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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