Electromyographic activity over facial muscle regions can differentiate the valence and intensity of affective reactions

J Pers Soc Psychol. 1986 Feb;50(2):260-8. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.50.2.260.


Physiological measures have traditionally been viewed in social psychology as useful only in assessing general arousal and therefore as incapable of distinguishing between positive and negative affective states. This view is challenged in the present report. Sixteen subjects in a pilot study were exposed briefly to slides and tones that were mildly to moderately evocative of positive and negative affect. Facial electromyographic (EMG) activity differentiated both the valence and intensity of the affective reaction. Moreover, independent judges were unable to determine from viewing videotapes of the subjects' facial displays whether a positive or negative stimulus had been presented or whether a mildly or moderately intense stimulus had been presented. In the full experiment, 28 subjects briefly viewed slides of scenes that were mildly to moderately evocative of positive and negative affect. Again, EMG activity over the brow (corrugator supercilia), eye (orbicularis oculi), and cheek (zygomatic major) muscle regions differentiated the pleasantness and intensity of individuals' affective reactions to the visual stimuli even though visual inspection of the videotapes again indicated that expressions of emotion were not apparent. These results suggest that gradients of EMG activity over the muscles of facial expression can provide objective and continuous probes of affective processes that are too subtle or fleeting to evoke expressions observable under normal conditions of social interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Electromyography*
  • Facial Expression
  • Facial Muscles / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Set, Psychology