Face Value: Hidden Smiles Influence Consumption And
Psychology Studies Confirm
‘Unfelt’ Emotion Can Alter Consequential Behavior
By Inga Kiderra
makes no comment on horses, but it seems that humans can be
made to drink.
In studies led by Piotr
Winkielman, associate professor of psychology at UCSD, people
altered their consumption behaviors after exposure to subliminal
Hidden smiles persuaded
thirsty subjects to pour more and drink more of an unidentified
beverage than did neutral expressions. Frowns had the opposite
who were unconsciously “primed” with happy faces
also reported being willing to pay up to triple the price for
the mystery drink. And they reported wanting another half cup
instead of just a sip or two more.
Remarkably, the test
subjects, whose actions had been influenced by these emotional
cues, were not aware of their feelings having changed.
“This is the
first demonstration that you can influence consequential, real-world
behavior without affecting conscious feeling. We can change
what you do, without changing how you feel,” Winkielman
participants who were unconsciously "primed" with
facial expressions poured and drank more than twice as much
after happy faces than
after angry faces. Courtesy Piotr Winkielman
of the forthcoming book Emotion and Consciousness,
believes the findings, presented at the American Psychological
Society annual convention in Los Angeles, May 26-29, support
the existence of unconscious or “unfelt” emotion.
operating outside conscious awareness can drive behavior. The
subjective experience of a feeling is not always necessary to
the process,” said Winkielman.
often slow,” he said. “In a frightening situation,
you run first, feel afraid later.”
To tease apart emotional
reaction and subjective feeling, Winkielman and colleagues devised
two different experiments.
In both studies, subjects
were first asked to rate how thirsty and hungry they were. Next,
they were subliminally exposed to a series of photographs of
happy, angry or neutral faces – masked each time by a
neutral face. Consciously, the subjects were aware only of seeing
the second, neutral image, which they were then asked to classify
as male or female. Immediately afterwards, they were asked (in
varying order) to interact with the beverage and rate their
Happy and angry expressions
were selected as primes, Winkielman said, because it is easy
to extract a simple positive and negative interpretation from
them: Grins and glowers are flashed at us in approval and reproach
since Day 1 and are essentially equivalent to “stop”
and “go” signs.
The researchers chose
drinking in part because ingesting an unknown substance can
have obvious biological consequences and is therefore not a
trivial act – even if, as in this case, the drink is made
of nothing more than water, sugar and lemon-lime Kool-Aid.
In the first experiment,
39 undergraduates freely helped themselves and drank as much
as they wanted. Unknown to them, the amounts poured and consumed
were recorded using an electronic scale. Thirsty participants
poured and drank more than twice the amount of the beverage
after happy primes than after angry primes.
In the second experiment,
29 undergraduates tasted a small, predetermined sample and were
then asked to evaluate it after one sip. Those at the high level
of thirst reported willingness to pay 38 cents (U.S.) after
happy primes and only 10 cents after angry ones. They also expressed
desire for an additional half cup instead of one to two sips.
reported being willing to pay up to triple the price
for the drink after happy primes. They also reported
wanting another half cup instead of just a sip or
two more. Courtesy Piotr Winkielman
In both studies, thirst
proved a necessary precondition for influence. Moderately thirsty
participants were only moderately affected. And those not thirsty,
not at all. Thirst also correlated positively with ratings of
the beverage’s deliciousness and thirst-quenching abilities.
Winkielman said. “Your motivational state – your
level of need – prepares you to process relevant information
and gives value to the stimulus. Otherwise, the emotional message
falls on deaf ears.”
or politicians tempted to apply these findings to advertising,
Winkielman says: It won’t work. The effects of subliminal
expressions were too short-lived. By the time people arrived
at the store or polling booth, all influence would have worn
The studies were supported
by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Results were
published earlier this year in the Personality and Social Psychology
Bulletin, with coauthors Kent C. Berridge of the University
of Michigan and Julia L. Wilbarger of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Media Contact: Inga
Kiderra, (858) 822-0661