Facing fear: Expression of fear facilitates processing of emotional information
Simone Schnall (University of Plymouth, UK), and James D. Laird (Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA), 2007, 35(4), 513–524

Of the various emotions that humans experience, the effects of fear are particularly interesting. It has been found in a number of studies that when experiencing fear, people are likely to react more quickly to emotional information or prompts. This has been demonstrated previously with clinically, or chronically, anxious or fearful individuals, but not so conclusively with individuals in temporarily induced fearful states.

In this study, Schnall and Laird used a new approach to see how a temporary fearful state might affect response times to emotional stimuli. Their participants were instructed to (unknowingly) adopt the facial expressions of fear, happiness, or anger, and then responded to emotional information. This tested whether the embodiment of an experience (putting it in the participants’ faces, so to speak) could produce the cognitive consequences of fear (faster processing of emotional information).

Results showed that, in fact, the temporarily induced fearful expression had a significant effect on emotional information processing. The times for those responding with a fearful expression were significantly faster than those with either happy or angry expressions. There was no significant difference between happiness and anger expressions.

The authors provide several interesting suggestions about these findings:
Perhaps when a person is in the vigilant state that accompanies fear, any emotional material is potentially relevant, such that negative cues signal the possibility of danger, whereas positive cues signal the absence thereof (p. 512).

However, given that the angry expression did not produce similar results, the authors note:
[I]t was not the case that any kind of negative bodily expression resulted in a cognitive bias. Second, no changes in participants’ emotional feelings as reported before and after the experimental manipulation were found, suggesting the possibility that the results were produced by the bodily cues directly, rather than being mediated by feelings (p. 521).

There are a number of other fascinating points discussed by Schnall and Laird throughout this article, and other conclusions add to our understanding of this interesting phenomenon. The results of research into human emotions continue to be surprising, insightful, and empowering, even after many decades of social psychology investigation!

We invite you to read this work to learn more about the details of the Schnall and Laird research findings, and we welcome any authors with new research to publish about human emotions. We look forward to hearing from you!

Alex Cheyne | Managing Editor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal