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Put on a brave face

‘Put on a brave face’, a phrase often used to get someone to put up a strong front in a difficult situation. On hearing such words, it often seems like a piece of useless advice – is it even possible to put on a brave face when you feel so nervous?

Everybody needs to put a brave face on sometimes… (Attribution: Gage Skidmore)

For many years there has been a debate as to the answer of the question: do you run (from a bear) because you are afraid or are you afraid because you run? In 1884, William James argued for the latter, that emotion (fear) is the perception of bodily sensations (running away). Stanley Schachter developed this idea further proposing that the emotion we feel is determined by the cognitive interpretation of our bodily reaction. Schachter and Singer (1962) conducted an experiment which clearly demonstrated this idea. Participants for this study were under the pretence of testing the effect of a new drug on vision when in fact they were being injected with adrenaline, not some new vitamin. They were divided into three groups; the first group were informed of the likely effects of the ‘vitamin’, the second were misinformed of the effects and the third group were told nothing at all of the effects. Each participant was told to wait in a room with a stooge, someone who they believed to be doing the same experiment as them. This stooge then acted euphoric or angry and the participant was asked to rate their own emotional state. If our emotions were based purely on our bodily reaction then you would assume that all three groups would rate their emotional state in the same way. However, they found that those in the misinformed or ignorant group based their emotional rating in a way that was congruent with the stooge’s expressed emotion whilst those participants that were informed of the drug’s effect attributed their feelings to the physiological effects, not to their emotions.

This study, along with many others, suggests that our emotion is determined by how we interpret our physiological reaction. Maybe this means that if we can force ourselves to smile we may interpret this as feeling happy and therefore act more confidently. A study by Strack and his colleagues supports this suggestion. He got participants to hold a pencil, horizontally, between their teeth or between their lips and then to watch cartoons. When holding a pencil between your teeth you use the muscles normally used for smiling unlike when holding the pencil between your lips (try it for yourself). When these participants then rated the cartoons, those people who had been holding the pencil between their teeth found the cartoons funnier than those who were holding it between their lips. So maybe just smiling, even if we don’t feel like it, will actually make us happier? So next time somebody tells you to put on a brave face it is worth remembering that there have been studies that suggest they may have a point! Smiling even if we don’t feel like it does seem to make us feel happier and maybe if our heart rate is up we should tell ourselves that it’s because we’re excited for whatever it is we need a brave face on for.

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