New Research Fails to Replicate Findings from Popular 1988 Study
Does smiling actually make you feel happier? Are we sadder when we frown?
Fourteen Walsh psychology students, under the direction of Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Joseph Wayand, along with a team of researchers around the world, recently participated in a Registered Replication Report (RRR) to test the validity of a widely accepted 1988 facial feedback theory. The original research by psychological scientists Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin and Sabine Stepper suggested that people’s emotional responses are influenced by their own facial expressions (smiling, frowning, etc.), even when their expression did not result from their emotional experience.
The original study, featured in college introductory psychology courses and textbooks for decades, has been supported over the years by a number of related studies. But, until now, it has never been replicated directly using the same design and method. The enduring impact of the original study and the lack of direct replications inspired the new RRR by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), where 17 laboratories around the world, including Walsh, were selected to each conduct a direct replication study of the 1988 report.
“We set out to answer the question ‘if you replicated the study today, would you get the same result?’ The RRR format provides an unbiased and transparent way to measure the reliability of the results from the original study,” said Dr. Wayand.
Read more about the registered replication report in the December Issue of the APS Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
In the original study, participants were instructed to rate the funniness of cartoons using a pen that they held in their mouth. When participants held the pen with their teeth (creating a “smile”), they rated the cartoons as funnier than when they held the pen with their lips (inducing a “pout”). What Strack and his team had discovered was that on average, the teeth “smiling” group found the comics a little funnier than the lips “pouting” group. They concluded that smiling actually does make you feel happier.
The replication conducted by APS followed the same guidelines, with each of the 17 labs following a vetted protocol that was registered online with Open Science Forum prior to data collection.
“Strack claimed that people are correct when they tell you to ‘Smile! You’ll feel better.’ Your brain is constantly trying to decide if you’re happy or sad,” said Dr. Wayand. “If all of your facial muscles are engaged that you normally use to smile, your brain thinks you’re happy. Your brain gets feedback from the muscles and that’s what brings about the emotion. Basically, we are testing to see if going through the motions engages the emotions.”
The Walsh research assistants guided by Dr. Wayand ran about 150 undergraduate students through the study. With a small grant from APS, the team was able to buy web cams to record every experiment to ensure that the appropriate protocol was established. With approval from the Institutional Review Board, the students “tricked” each subject into smiling or frowning with the cover story that they were studying alternative ways of writing for people who don’t have use of their arms. Each participant was then asked to hold a pen in their mouth and circle or do various tasks.
“What the students didn’t know was that they were in one of two groups – either the pout group or the smile group,” said Dr. Wayand. “For example, they were instructed to either hold the pen with their lips or their teeth to complete a series of tasks. When you hold a pen with your teeth you are actually engaging a lot of the same muscles that you would when you smile. Therefore, you are smiling without being aware that you are doing so.
At the end, they had to rate how funny four Far Side comic strips were. And then we crunched the numbers.”
By the end of the 2015 semester, the team had their statistics. They were surprised to see that they had not found a difference. The original study did not replicate. Students who were “smiling” by holding the pen with their teeth did not seem any happier than the group “pouting.”
“I was a little surprised and concerned when we saw our results. I thought it would replicate but not as strongly. We knew our Walsh lab had not replicated the original study, but we didn’t know how the other 16 sites had done because we weren’t allowed to speak to each other,” said Dr. Wayand. “When we received the final Replication Report, we found out that the other labs had the same results we did. And we knew this would cause a lot of discussion in the field of psychology.”
For Dr. Wayand, the research also demonstrated that the Walsh psychology lab located in Betzler is equipped to handle a large-scale international study that included more than 150 participants.
“Our lab works. Our results were consistent with these other labs all around the world. It is also impressive that on such a highly regarded study, we were able to complete the research with our undergraduate psychology students leading the testing, while the other 16 labs all used graduate students to conduct the research,” said Dr. Wayand. “At Walsh, our students have the opportunity to participate in original research as undergraduate students. You won’t have that kind of experience at a larger institution. You’re doing something that is real, something that matters, something that the rest of the world cares about. At Walsh, our undergrads are doing coursework that will outlive the course.”