That “Poker Face” Just Might Lose You the Game! The Impact of Expressive Suppression and Mimicry on Sensitivity to Facial Expressions of Emotion

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Successful interpersonal functioning often requires both the ability to mask inner feelings and the ability to accurately recognize others’ expressions—but what if effortful control of emotional expressions impacts the ability to accurately read others? In this study, we examined the influence of self-controlled expressive suppression and mimicry on facial affect sensitivity—the speed with which one can accurately identify gradually intensifying facial expressions of emotion. Muscle activity of the brow (corrugator, related to anger), upper lip (levator, related to disgust), and cheek (zygomaticus, related to happiness) were recorded using facial electromyography while participants randomized to one of three conditions (Suppress, Mimic, and No-Instruction) viewed a series of six distinct emotional expressions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust) as they morphed from neutral to full expression. As hypothesized, individuals instructed to suppress their own facial expressions showed impairment in facial affect sensitivity. Conversely, mimicry of emotion expressions appeared to facilitate facial affect sensitivity. Results suggest that it is difficult for a person to be able to simultaneously mask inner feelings and accurately “read” the facial expressions of others, at least when these expressions are at low intensity. The combined behavioral and physiological data suggest that the strategies an individual selects to control his or her own expression of emotion have important implications for interpersonal functioning.

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