Fake It Until You Break It

Mind-Body Dissonance can have profound effects on your thoughts and feelings.

Posted Feb 04, 2020

"She always tells me to smile and put on a happy face." —Arthur Fleck, Joker

The human face is an important part of our anatomy, not only because it features three sense organs (eyes, nose, and mouth), but also because it allows us to express our emotions. When we’re happy, we smile. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the reverse is also true: putting on a smile can make you happier. This is consistent with the facial feedback hypothesis, which suggests a person’s facial movements can influence their experience of emotion.

However, not all scientific studies have found support for the hypothesis that facial expressions can lead people to feel the corresponding emotions. This inspired researchers to conduct a large meta-analysis (published in 2019), which did indeed find a link between facial expression and feelings. The effect was significant but small, indicating that we can’t “smile our way to happiness” quite as easily as we may want to believe.

If “pulling yourself up by the corners of your mouth” works at least to some extent, what happens if an individual’s internal emotional state is in complete opposition to their external expression? Imagine you’re a salesperson and your manager expects you to put on a friendly face even if you’re confronted by an unreasonable and rude customer. How would it affect you?

Research on mind-body dissonance (MBD) has investigated this more closely and several studies have found negative effects ranging from job dissatisfaction to increased stress.

In one study, participants watched sad film clips and were asked to either naturally watch or express the opposite of what they were feeling. Participants in the latter, “expressively dissonant” group, showed greater sympathetic arousal (a physiological response associated with stress, which activates a fight or flight response) and subsequently did worse on a memory task (recalling facts from the film) compared to individuals who watched the film naturally.

A concept related to MBD is "surface acting," which occurs when people have to amplify, suppress, or fake emotional expressions, such as putting on an act to deal with customers in an appropriate way. In an occupational context, a survey on clerical workers found a correlation between "surface acting" and emotional exhaustion.

Similarly, results from a more recent study on U.S. service workers show that surface acting is linked to greater alcohol consumption for people with low self-control jobs (i.e. low autonomy) or traits (i.e. impulsivity).

The control factor is an important aspect of MBD. According to newly published research by Li Huang and Jennifer Whitson, MBD diminishes individuals’ sense of control and may thus trigger a compensatory control process. This may affect not only people’s emotions and well-being but also the way they think.

One type of compensatory process is reflected in the so-called illusory pattern perception (IPP). This refers to the “perception of meaningful interrelationships among random or unrelated stimuli.” The researchers hypothesized that these types of illusions are more likely under conditions of MBD. In particular, they were interested in IPPs in the form of conspiratorial thinking and superstitious thinking.

One study used clever manipulations to change participants' facial expressions. In a positive-expression group, participants were asked to hold a marker with only their front teeth to simulate a smile. In a negative-expression group, experimenters made participants simulate a frown with the help of two golf tees affixed on their foreheads. (Details on how this was done are described in the article.) To manipulate their emotions, participants were asked to recall either a happy or sad experience and to write a narrative account of this experience.

Finally, to assess conspiratorial thinking, participants rated the extent to which they believed the actions of people in various scenarios were connected to the outcome experienced by the protagonist. For example, one scenario described a situation in which you notice your coworker in the cubicle next to yours communicating with your boss more than usual just before you are denied a promotion. The results of the study showed that those who were manipulated to have mind-body dissonance engaged in more conspiratorial thinking than those with mind-body congruence.

A second study asked participants to take on the role of a customer service employee in a simulated role-play. In one simulation, for example, participants were an airline counter agent dealing with an aggravating customer and asked to express positive (dissonant) or negative (congruent) emotions with their voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Next, participants were presented with scenarios, such as forgetting to stomp your feet three times before going to a meeting as you usually would and subsequently having your ideas ignored at the meeting. Participants felt that the event was more connected to the action (indicating superstitious thinking) in the mind-body dissonant than the congruent conditions.

In a final study, the researchers showed that mind-body dissonance and conspiratorial thinking can both lead to lower levels of trusting behavior towards coworkers.

Taken together, research on MBD shows that faking emotions can have significant negative consequences on people’s thoughts and feelings at work. Some employers may well need to relax the expectations they have for the sake of their employees’ wellbeing, decision-making ability, and interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, asking customer-facing staff to wear their hearts on their sleeves is not usually an option. MBD theory implies that employers may be able to make up for this if they give employees greater autonomy or control in other aspects of their work.