Did you ever have to smile politely when you felt like screaming? In these situations, the emotions that we are required to express differ from the ones we are feeling inside. That can be stressful, unpleasant, and exhausting. Normally our minds and our bodies are in harmony. When facial expressions or posture depart from how we feel, we experience what is call mind–body dissonance. And in a fascinating new paper, they show that such awkward clashes between mind and body can actually be useful: they help us think more expansively.
When we think expansively, we think about categories more inclusively, we stop privileging the average cases, and extend our horizons to the atypical or exotic. Expansive thought can be regarded a kind of creativity, and an opportunity for new insights.
Huang and Galinsky, two psychologists, have shown that mind–body dissonance can make us think expansively. In a clever series of studies, they developed a way to get people’s facial expressions to depart from their emotional experiences. Participants were asked to either hold a pen between their teeth, forcing an unwitting smile, or to affix two golf tees in a particular position on their foreheads, unwittingly forcing an expression of sadness. While in these facial configurations subjects were asked to recall happy and sad events or listen to happy and sad music.
The team found that people are more likely to consider a camel a vehicle in conditions where their expressions different from the emotions caused by music or autobiographical memories. In a further study they showed that this effect is not limited to facial expressions and emotions. They asked people to play either dominant or submissive roles in a game, while sitting in postural positions that have been shown in other research to reflect power or weakness. Once again, the dissonance between mind—feeling dominant in a game—and body—sitting in a constricted position—lead to more expansive thinking.
These curious findings have some significant implications. They back up a growing body of evidence that cognition is “embodied,” meaning that our physical actions directly influence the way we think.
The new research also adds support to work showing that facial expressions influence our emotions. Participants in the Huang and Galinsky studies reported that their facial configurations influenced their moods, confirming that emotions are intimately connected to the body. There is also a large body of evidence showing that emotions influence how we think.
Huang and Galinksy’s work contributes by showing that conflicts between the emotions created by the body and the emotions elicited by other sources, such as music and memory, do not just influence what we think, but how we think.
The most exciting aspect of this work is that Huang and Galinksy find that mind–body dissonance has a positive payoff, even though it can feel unpleasant. There are conditions under which is it good for us, not just polite, to express emotions that differ from how we are feeling. We can also increase empathy for others by mimicking their expressions, even when we don’t share their feelings.
Now Huang and Galinsky have discovered a new benefit to adopting expressions that don’t originate from within. Doing so leads us to think more flexibly: our categories become more inclusive. This may help with creative problem-solving, as well as social conflicts. When we experienced mind–body dissonance, the foreclosed begins to look feasible. Inner conflict shakes us from cognitive complacency and makes us receptive to new possibilities.