Susceptibility to emotional contagion predicts the ability to discriminate faked from genuine smiles

Being able to detect feigned from real facial expressions such as genuine smiles from faked smiles is an integral part of social cognition and highly challenging task for the human brain. There are a number of instances where faked smiles can be produced, for example to hide information, and being able to recognize faked smiles can prevent one from being deceived or from acting inappropriately in social situations. It has been shown previously that there is substantial inter-individual variability in the ability to discriminate between felt and simulated happy expressions, but fairly little is known about the determinants that underlie this variability.

In their recent study, Manera et al. (2013) tested a hypothesis that the ability to discriminate between real and faked smiles is determined by the sensitivity of a person to emotional contagion. They tested the susceptibility of 108 healthy volunteers to emotional contagion by administering the so-called Emotional Contagion Scale. The subjects then underwent a validated smile recognition task consisting of 25 color pictures showing real and faked smiles, with variability in the facial muscles involved in the generation of the smiles. The subjects were to indicate after each picture whether they perceived the smiling person as really happy or just pretending to be happy.

The authors observed that susceptibility to emotional contagion indeed explained significant part of the individual variation in the ability to discriminate between real and faked smiles. Interestingly, the authors further observed that susceptibility to emotional contagion by negative emotions went hand in hand with increased ability to detect faked smiles, whereas susceptibility to emotional contagion by positive emotions predicted reduced ability to detect faked smiles, with faked smiles being perceived as positive ones. While these findings were limited to still pictures of single-gender facial expressions, they are nonetheless highly important and encouraging and pave way for further studies on factors governing the ability to perceive genuine from faked emotional expressions.

Reference: Manera V, Grandi E, Colle L. Susceptibility to emotional contagion for negative emotions improves detection of smile authenticity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2013) 7:6. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00006

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