Novel methodological approaches to the investigation of emotional mimicry from a functional perspective

July 12th Room 4
Michal Olszanowski (University of Social Sciences & Humanities), Monika Wróbel (University of Lodz, Poland) & Ursula Hess (Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany)

Emotional mimicry is a well-recognized phenomenon in psychology. Hess and Fischer (2016) provided a review of the main findings of the last decades in this area, in which they proposed that the function of emotional mimicry is to facilitate the understanding of others’ emotions. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, emotional mimicry serves an affiliative function by providing subtle signs of mutual understanding and empathy. These propositions provide a useful starting point for further research aimed at improving our understanding of the impact of emotions on social interactions. The aim of the symposium is to present the latest findings in this field by bringing together a variety of novel methodological approaches to the investigation of mimicry from a functional perspective. The first presentation investigates whether mimicry is related to personality traits and predictive of interaction quality. The second talk provides a controlled experimental test of the effects of being mimicked, through the use of virtual humans. The third presentation investigates how different forms of mimicry are related to empathy and trust. The fourth talk explores the role of the opioid system in facial mimicry. The last talk provides empirical evidence for the role of facial mimicry in emotional contagion.

Mimicking and sharing emotions: A re-examination of the link between facial mimicry and emotional contagion 

Michal Olszanowski, Monika Wróbel & Ursula Hess

Facial mimicry has long been postulated as one of the main mechanisms leading to emotional contagion (i.e., the transfer of emotions between people). A closer look at the empirical evidence, however, reveals that although these two phenomena often co-occur, the changes in emotional expressions may not necessarily be causally linked to the changes in subjective emotional experience. Here, we directly investigate this link, by testing a model in which facial activity serves as a mediator between the observed emotional displays and subsequently felt emotions (i.e., emotional contagion). Participants watched videos of different senders displaying happiness, anger, or sadness, while their facial activity was recorded. After each video, participants rated their emotions and assessed the senders’ likeability and competence. Results demonstrated that participants mimicked and felt emotions displayed by the senders. Moreover, their facial activity partially explained the link between the senders’ emotional displays and self-reported emotions, thereby supporting the notion that facial mimicry may be a mechanism involved in emotional contagion.

Virtual mimicry: The effect of mimicry by a virtual human on social behavior 

Job van der Schalk, Rens Hoegen, Gale Lucas & Jon Gratch

Mimicry, the automatic imitation of non-verbal behavior, is associated with pro-social behavior like empathy and affiliation (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1994). However, studies of the effects of mimicry often rely on its measurement, which doesn't establish the causal effect of being mimicked, or on the use of confederates, which may introduce noise or experimenter effects. The current study investigated the effects of being mimicked in a controlled way, through the use of virtual humans (VH). We hypothesized that VH facial mimicry would increase rapport and pro-social behavior. Participants played a 10-round iterated prisoner’s dilemma with a VH, while their facial behavior was tracked with automatic facial recognition software. Brow lowering (AU4) and smiling (AU12) was live animated on the VH in one of four conditions: the facial behavior of the VH either matched the facial behavior of the participant (mimicry condition) or showed the opposite facial behavior (counter-mimicry condition); in two control conditions (mimicry and counter-mimicry) the agent responded to a previous opponent (yoked control). In line with our hypothesis, participants showed more positive facial behavior to a mimicking VH. In addition, rapport was positively associated with the number of cooperative choices in the prisoner’s dilemma, but only when the VH mimicked the participant. These findings provide controlled experimental evidence of the positive effects of mimicry on social behavior and suggest that mimicry by a VH may evoke more ‘natural’ social behavior in human-computer interactions.

Effects of opioidergic and dopaminergic antagonism on facial mimicry 

Sebastian Korb, Matthäus Willeit & Giorgia Silani

Facial mimicry, i.e. the imitation of a perceived facial expression, is a well-documented phenomenon. The amplitude of facial mimicry is modulated by many factors, including the rewarding nature of social interactions. Smiling faces in particular are considered social rewards, and their mimicry may itself be rewarding. Recently, interest has emerged in the effects of various neuromodulators on facial mimicry, including the opioidergic and dopaminergic systems – also underlying motivational and hedonic aspects of reward. In an attempt to better understand social reward processing in general, and facial mimicry in particular, I’ll present results of a pharmacological study in which participants received, in a placebo-controlled between-subjects design, 50 mg of naltrexone (an opioid receptor antagonist), or 400 mg of amisulpride (a dopamine D2/3 receptor antagonist). Four hours after drug administration, facial mimicry of dynamic happy and angry facial expressions was measured with facial electromyography of the corrugator and zygomaticus muscles. In line with previous findings, a reduction of facial mimicry was found in the naltrexone group. This suggests that the opioid system may mediate or modulate facial mimicry, possibly by conveying reward value to perceived emotional faces.

From Mimicry to Trust: A Tinbergian Approach 

Mariska Kret

Many daily decisions are made through quick evaluations of another’s trustworthiness, especially when they involve strangers. Individuals rely on a partner’s tractable characteristics, including expressions of emotion. These are readily mimicked even down to the physiological level. I will here present my recent research findings on mimicry in the context of a newly started research project where I investigate which forms of mimicry are empathic and inform decisions of trust and distrust. The mimicry-empathy linkage has come under discussion with the publication of counter-examples in biology and failures of replication in psychology, making the question of what mimicry entails even more important. The key role emotional expressions play in our daily life positions this revived debate around mimicry at the forefront of emotion science. Scientific advancement in this field, however, demands a new theoretical and methodological approach. Therefore, I place mimicry within the Tinbergian framework. Fundamentally, this means that I incorporate biological and psychological approaches to the study of mimicry and during dyadic interactions, investigate different forms of mimicry simultaneously, e.g. facial mimicry, pupil mimicry, and more, and their 1) Function: what they are good for. Using economic games, I study which mimicry forms are related to empathy and inform social decisions; 2) Mechanism: how they operate on the neurophysiological level; 3) Development: how mimicry develops over the lifespan and which mimicry forms are phylogenetically continuous and shared with the great apes, our closest living relatives and link to our shared evolutionary past.

Facial mimicry as a trait 

Ursula Hess, Heidi Mauersberger & Konstantinos Kafetsios

Everyday social interactions almost always include some level of emotional exchange - be it only the friendly smile of a cashier or the disapproving frown of a security guard at the airport. In human interactions such expressions are often mirrored – a tendency referred to as emotional mimicry. Emotional mimicry is usually considered situation driven emotional behavior. In this presentation we will advance the notion that the tendency to show emotional mimicry in the laboratory is meaningfully associated with personality traits and predictive of interaction quality in a seven-day diary task in which social interactions with friends, partners and acquaintances were recorded. Complete data were obtained from 108 participants (82 women). Emotional mimicry to angry, happy, sad, and disgusted faces shown in a social setting was assessed using facial EMG at the Corrugator Supercilii, Zygomaticus Major, Orbicularis Oculi and Levator Labii Aleaque Nasii. The Big five, an assessment of emotion regulation, self-esteem as well as positive and negative affectivity were measured. Personality variables predicted the tendency to mimic specific emotions in the laboratory which in turn predicted interaction quality reported in the diary study