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The Effects of Facial Expressions on Positive Affect
Department of Psychology
Brackett Hall, 121
Clemson University Clemson, SC
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The Effects of Facial Expression on Positive Affect
Within psychology, much research has been conducted on facial expression and perception.
Our research specifically focuses on the effects of smiling on positive affect while performing
mundane tasks such as filling out a survey. The Self-Perception Theory can be defined as the
following according to Schnall and Laird et al., “…we must infer our internal states from our
actions…. feelings are the consequences of behavior, not the causes: we feel happy because we
smile, and angry because we scowl” (Schnall & Laird, 2003). This means the way we feel is a
direct result of our behaviors. Furthermore, more recent research by Paredes, Stavraki, Brinol, and
Petty (2013), has shown that not only does our behavior influence our thought content, but also
how we feel about our thoughts. This topic is important because the results could help with other
areas of psychology such as counseling and using our information to further help patients who
struggle with their self-perception. Likewise, by using positive affect to enhance ones view of self.
Additionally, research has shown that, “… smiling is a positive behavior that often leads to
positive evaluations” Paredes, et al, 2013, further providing evidence facial expression greatly
influences positive affect and self-perception.
For our study, the basic structure of Strack Martin and Steppers experiment completed in
1988 will be used. In this study they had participants hold a pen between their teeth while
watching cartoons. They were then asked to judge the cartoons afterwards. The participants were
not aware that holding the pen between their teeth caused them to smile. The study concluded that
the subjects found the cartoons funnier when they were preforming this action. This research
indicates that facial expressions and behaviors are directly linked to our perceptions and attitudes
of situations. This theory is heavily rooted in social psychology by linking our behaviors with
embodied attitudes. Embodied attitudes are the act of personifying an attitude that consist of
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mental schemas that contain heuristics for how we act, feel, and behave in that situation. The study
done by Strack Martin and Steppers (1988) further concluded that individuals are more likely to
perceive things in a positive manner if they smile while doing them.
It is hypothesized that there will be a statistical difference between the pen and no pen
group in the experiment due to the results of previous studies. I.e the Strack Martin and Stepper
(1988) study mentioned previously found that participants holding a pen between their teeth while
preforming such task have felt more positively after the study. This gives implications that positive
affect could be used to improve one’s perception of self. Furthermore, the research conducted
could further improve counseling techniques and methods used for depressed and anxious patients.
We will use this study as an outline for our research to further develop our knowledge on how the
participant’s self-perception varies with mindful behaviors such as holding a pen in your mouth,
which causes you to smile. Moreover, it would be interesting to see how the participant’s
perception varied according to gender and class rank, in addition to group assignment. By studying
both variables, we may be able to obtain a more accurate representation of the relationships that
predict positive affect.
In another study conducted by Laird 1974 he studied self-attribution in relation to
expressive behavior and how we feel. Self-attribution can be defined as, “… individuals assign
themselves attributes as the result of a process of inference from their behavior and its context.
Thus, people are presumed to know what their emotions are by inference from what they say and
do” (Laird, 1974). This study also relates to ours in that the research attributes ones attitudes as a
result of ones behaviors. Laird et al. gives the following example about this relationship, “… I am
angry rather than euphoric or frightened because I am frowning, clenching my fists, and gritting
my teeth, and I am angry rather than just annoyed because my heart is pounding, I have butterflies
in my stomach, and I feel flushed” (Laird, 1974). This example demonstrates how we associate our
feelings or attitudes to certain behaviors and facial expressions. Each feeling has a set of
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characteristics that form a certain attitude such as being angry. These phenomena can be applied to
other areas of psychology such as dealing with one’s positive affect. It can be hypothesized that
associating more positive attitudes with a behavior would create a better self-perception of how
you view the task. Thus, when applied to a counseling setting, applying more positive attitudes to
one’s life and associating them with certain behaviors could possibly enhance one’s outlook on life
and perception of ones selves. Likewise, repeating this experiment using other emotions such as
honesty or aggression would produce interesting outcomes. In addition, the results could be
applied to other settings like the workplace.
In the experiment to be conducted, the participants will be divided into two groups: one the
control group and the other our independent variable. The control group will contain the
individuals not asked to hold a pen in their mouth and the independent variable group will contain
participants asked to hold a pen in their mouth. Due to the nature of the study, we cannot deceive
the participants, so they will be aware that this action will cause them to smile. Because of this
fact, there will be some sampling error in our study. For this study we plan to have a group that is
told to smile while filling out a survey and a control group who was not told to do so while
participating in mundane tasks. Our independent variable being manipulated will be whether we
tell the participants to hold a pen in their mouth or not. Our dependent variable will be their
perception of the survey after. We will operationalize our independent variable by using the
PANAS survey to observe their emotional reaction after filling out the survey.
A convenience sample of 44 undergraduate students who attend a well-known public
university in the Southeastern United States partook in this study. The study was in person and
required a pen and a copy of the article per participant for a timed reading. Additionally, a
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stopwatch was needed to time the 5 minute reading portion of the experiment and a laptop to
administer the random number generator. The participants were both male and female
students who were 18 and older. The study was based on voluntary response and students in
certain classes at the university received .5 points to participate. Both groups were then
instructed to complete a timed reading of the Declaration of Independence. After this task was
finished, participants were further instructed to complete a PANAS fulfillment survey. A
between-subject design was used to ensure participants were only part of one condition.
Participants were placed into groups using a random number generator.
Pen for Manipulation of Facial Expression
Participants (N=25) selected into the treatment group were instructed to hold a pen between
their teeth horizontally. The act of holding a pen between one’s teeth forces a smile, thus
providing our manipulation of happiness. The pen was controlled by giving participants a pen
to use in the study so that the size and shape of the pen did not factor into any data obtained.
Participants were then instructed to hold the pen between their teeth while reading an excerpt
from the Declaration of Independence. Copies of this document were given to each participant
for them to read. Following the timed five minute reading using a stopwatch we administered
the PANAS fulfillment survey. This survey provided an identifiable way to measure happiness.
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was given to each participant to read for five minutes.
This was meant to simulate the completion of a mundane task.
PANAS (The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule)
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The PANAS survey was used to test the effects of positive facial expressions, specifically
happiness for our study, on self-perception. The assessment, however, was originally
developed by Watson, Clark, and Tellegen (1988), to test for both positive and negative affect.
The PANAS survey also tested for the affect in relation to time. The survey consists of 20
self-response questions. Participants are asked to rate 10 negative and 10 positive emotions on
a 5 point scale, similar to that of a Likert scale. The individuals score comprised of the
emotion (positive or negative) which was more prevalent was based on their responses.
Dependent Variable: Survey Responses
Participants were instructed to respond to the 20 item PANAS survey after a timed
reading of the Declaration of Independence. The survey responses were initially used for
qualitative data, but were later used in the analysis. They were instructed to respond with what
best described them. Once the surveys were obtained statistical analysis of the data was
conducted to obtain quantitative results.
The participants (N=19) placed into this group were also instructed to complete a 5 minute
timed reading of the Declaration of Independence. Participants in this group were not asked to
place a pen between their teeth while doing so. Participants were then asked to complete a 20
item PANAS fulfillment survey. They were told to fill out the survey with answers that best
described them. After doing so participants were debriefed and dismissed.
Participants were randomly assigned to two groups using a random number generator: the
treatment group which was instructed to hold a pen between their teeth (N=25), while
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participants in the control group were not (N=19). The treatment condition was designed to
artificially cause the participants in the treatment group to smile, whereas the control condition
did not cause forced smiles. All of the participants were administered the PANAS, which
consisted of a 2 group between-subject design, which tested for differences in affect between
This study collected qualitative data through observation and quantitative data obtained
after administering the PANAS survey. Participants were led to believe that the study was
collecting data on physical and mental multitasking while completing a mundane tasks.
Participants in each group were instructed to read the article provided within five minutes. The
article was an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence. Participants were given a copy and
a pen if in the treatment group. Participants in the treatment group were instructed to hold a pen
between their teeth while reading and the control group were not. After reading, a PANAS
survey was administered to each group to measure the participant’s positive and negative affects
once completing the timed reading. After completing the survey participants were debriefed and
dismissed from the study.
The PANAS survey consisted of 20 categories and two variables positive and negative
affect. The Cronbach’s alphas for the 10 positive items was (α=.837) and the 10 negative items
was (α=.685). Since there was no variance between the two groups the test was found highly
reliable for both scale variables.
The positive affect among participants in the pen group were more positive than that of the
non-pen group. An Independent t test was used to test for significance between the two groups.
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In our sample, participants in the pen group scored significantly higher than those in the non-pen
group (t(42) = .273, p=.649). The means for these two groups appear in Table 1. Additionally,
refer to Table 2 for more information pertaining to the skew and variance between the positive
and negative affect scores.
An Independent t test was used to test for significance between gender and positive and
negative affect scores. Females responded significantly more negatively than males (t(31.492)= -
5.486, p=.015). The means and standard deviation are listed in Table 1. Furthermore, Table 3
provides more information pertaining to the variation amongst negative affect scores in males
There was no statistical difference between class rank and positive affect. A One Way
ANOVA was used to test for significance between the two groups. An alpha was set at .05 for
analysis. The main effect of class rank was not statistically significant for positive affect
(F(3,40)= .785, p > .05). Refer to Table 1 for the mean and standard deviation for class rank and
The first hypothesis did not produce the expected results that the pen group would have a
higher positive affect score than the no pen group. The results from our first independent t test
instead indicated that there was no difference in scores between the pen and no pen group.
Additionally, there was no variance between positive and negative affect scores and the PANAS
survey was found highly reliable. The skew and variance is further shown in Table 2.
Furthermore, the two groups had an unequal number of participants which could account for our
findings that the two groups were not statistically different.
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Our results did not match up with past studies results. The original study conducted by
Strack Martin and Stepper (1988) consistently found that the group holding the pen between their
teeth had higher positive affect scores. Sample size and sampling method could have accounted
for these results. All participants used participated for extra credit, therefore, our sample was
Positive affect scores also tended to be more skewed in there distribution than negative
affect scores. This could be due to confounding variables in the experiment, such as the time and
day of the study. Since it was held on a Friday afternoon some participants might not have shown
due to it being Friday or not needing the extra credit.
Negative affect scores also tended to be higher in females than males as shown in Table
1. However, our sample only contained four males, which could account for this variance in
scores between males and females. Additionally, our sample size consisted of 44 participants. A
larger sample size might have made our distribution more normal and more representative of the
entire population. To control for this future studies could use a better sampling technique, such
as random sampling, so that participants would have a more equal chance of being placed into
either the pen or no pen group. To further improve our research design participants across
different majors would need to be included.
Other confounding variables we found were that participants were distracted by their
phones and were concerned about the length of the study. These factors may have caused outliers
to occur that could account for no statistical differences seen between the pen and no pen group.
Other students were concerned about the reason behind the pen and seemed to focus too much on
this variable. To control better for this, we could have a false hypothesis that explained another
reason for the pen.
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David, W., & Clark, L. A. (1994). Positive and negative affect schedule--expanded version.
Psyctests, doi:10.1037/t04754-000; Full; Full text; 999904754_full_001.pdf
Laird, J. D. (1974). Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality
of emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(4), 475-486.
McKeown, G., Sneddon, I., & Curran, W. (2015). Gender differences in the perceptions of
genuine and simulated laughter and amused facial expressions. Emotion Review, 7(1), 30-38.
Paredes, B., Stavraki, M., Briñol, P., & Petty, R. E. (2013). Smiling after thinking increases
reliance on thoughts. Social Psychology, 44(5), 349-353. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000131
Schnall, S., & Laird, J. D. (2003). Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and
postures on emotional experience and memory. Cognition and Emotion, 17(5), 787-797.
Stins, J. F., Lobel, A., Roelofs, K., & Beek, P. J. (2014). Social embodiment in directional
stepping behavior. Cognitive Processing, 15(3), 245-252. doi:10.1007/s10339-013-0593-x
Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Positive and negative affect schedule. Psyctests,
doi:10.1037/t03592-000; Full; Full text; 999903592_full_001.pdf
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Statistical Analysis of PANAS Survey Results
Type of Test Variables Mean Standard Deviation
(Positive and Negative
Affect across pen and
no pen group)
No pen (N=19)
No pen (N=19)
(Positive and Negative
Affect across gender)
One Way ANOVA
(Positive and Negative
Affect across class
Note. Each test contains different variables. I.e. The One Way ANOVA tested for the differences
in scores in positive and negative affect across class rank. For each class rank there is a mean and
standard deviation given.
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Positive and Negative Affect Scores Variation
Note. There was a wider variation in positive scores, whereas the distribution for negative scores
was less skewed. This means negative scores were relatively more reliable and consistent than
positive affect scores.
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Variation of Negative Affect Scores across Gender
Note. Males were labeled as “1” and females as “2.” Female scores showed they generally felt
more negative emotions.