Fridlund, A. J. (1991). The sociality of solitary smiles: Effects of an implicit audience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 229-240.
This is a very important empirical study that has serious implications for the way that we (should) think about facial activity. Everybody who works in research and engineering on projects that involve the relationship between what people feel and what people show on their face should know about this study and its findings. They should know it well.
Imagine, you hear about a psychological study that involves a task you should perform with a friend – so you bring a friend along to the lab. Once there, the experimenter tells you that the two of you are going to watch a funny movie together (actually a series of five clips, spliced together, totaling a bit over 13 minutes). While watching the clip, the activity of a couple of facial muscles is measured using electrodes glued to your face. If you must know, a pair of electrodes on your left cheek, your right cheek, and the left brow. The cheek site relates to the muscle Zygomaticus Major, that we use for smiling. The brow site assesses activity at the site of Corrugator Supercilii, a muscle we use to frown by pulling the brows together and down. To make it less explicit that facial activity was at the center of the researcher’s interest there were also some electrodes on other sites, the top of the head or the hand and the experimenter said something about recording brain waves … After the end of the funny clips you answer how you feel using some scales, in fact you had also answered the same questions at the beginning of the experiment. Not complicated. (Fridlund refers to this condition as explicit coviewing)
In a parallel universe, you arrive with your friend, but the experimenter in this world tells you that you will watch a funny movie in one room while your friend watches the same movie at the same time in a different room. Again, your facial activity is measured and you indicate after the experiment how you feel. (= implicit coviewing)
In yet another universe, you arrive with a friend, but this time the experimenter tells you the good news that you are going to watch the funny clip while your friend is filling out something that does not relate to this at all – it is part of a different study. (= implicit irrelevant task)
Surprisingly, there is even a parallel universe where you are not aware of any experiment involving friends – you come to a study alone where you are being told that you will watch a funny movie etc etc. (= solitary participation)
So now that you picture the four situations in your mind – like in Sesame Street: One of the foursituations when you are watching the clip is different. Which one? The one where two people watch a movie together – in the other three you are alone in a room watching the movie, having electrodes attached to your face, and answering questions.
According to the predominant view regarding the relationship of feelings and emotional expressions at the time, one would predict that there should be no difference in the expression across the three solitary conditions – or, for that matter, the subjective experience in the three conditions where you are alone. Why? The assumption would be that when we are alone, we show simply what we feel – which would be the same in all three. There is no need to modulate what you show for reasons that it might be inappropriate, or that somebody would expect something from us – in contrast, when we are together with others, then different rules would apply – what Ekman and Friesen have referred to as “display rules”.
I remember, when I was in grad school at Dartmouth College, in the late 80’s, I received a description of this study and was asked what my predictions were for the findings. I do not remember exactly what I answered, but I do remember that I was wrong, once the results of the study were revealed – The ingenuous study by Alan Fridlund demonstrated that the most smiling occurred when friends watched the clip together, OK, no surprise here, but rather than all the other situations being the same, it mattered what the subjects thought their friend was doing. If you thought your friend was watching the same film in another room concurrently, then you smiled more than when your friend was supposedly doing something else. For Fridlund this was not surprising – he argued that it does not only matter who is actually physically present, but who is present in our head – something he referred to as implicit sociality. The next surprising thing was that the subjective experience was the same all cases independent from the intensity of the smiles – from this Fridlund concluded that emotions do not matter – that facial activity is determined only by the social context – whether explicit or implicit.
I do not agree with the latter conclusion – and I have reasons not to, but I will talk about that in the next installment of the blog. In the meanwhile, if you find this interesting, go and get a copy of the paper and read it – including the theoretical explanation that relates to behavioral ecology – Fridlund explained this much better than I could do here in a couple of paragraphs. In fact, you will find that there were also a couple of hypothetical studies – one involving “a small sample (n = 5) of advanced graduate students and doctoral candidates studying the face and emotion at a major northeastern university” (p. 235) that did not predict these results (to illustrate the point that the pattern of findings is not trivial) … you know one of these students I guess ;-)