People often say that your feelings are “written all over your face.” That’s because our facial expressions are a main way we communicate emotions, whether that means smiling and crinkling our eyes when we’re happy or furrowing our brows and tensing our lips when we’re angry.
But, according to some recent research led by Patty Van Cappellen at Duke University’s Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center, our faces are not doing all of the heavy lifting when it comes to expressing feelings. Our body posture also plays a role.
How do bodies speak?
In one study, Van Cappellen and her colleagues studied the role of body posture in expressing emotion in a pretty novel way. They asked a group of participants to pose miniature, faceless mannequins in postures that represented to them four different emotions: dominance, joy, hope, and awe. Some of these feelings had been associated with “expansive” postures—where people take up more space by standing erect, opening up their torso, or extending their limbs away from their body—and the researchers wanted to see what people would create on their own without being prompted by actors or others.
Research assistants (who didn’t know the purpose of the experiment) looked at photos of the mannequins that participants had created and assessed their head positions, arm positions, and degrees of expansiveness, measured both horizontally and vertically. Then, the researchers compared these positions to the feelings they supposedly expressed.
Similar to prior research, Van Cappellen found that people perceived an expansive posture as representing dominance. But joy and awe were also represented by expansive postures—even more so than dominance—with hope involving the least expansive posture of the bunch.
“We’re looking at how people express their positive emotions in their full body, and it’s clear that how much space your body takes up is present in other emotions or effective states beyond dominance,” she says. “We’re finding that positive emotions are also marked by expansiveness—especially joy, which is even more expansive than dominance.”
However, the differences didn’t end there: Arm and head positions also mattered. For example, joyful postures were depicted by arms raised above the head and the head tilted upward, while awe postures showed hands touching the face or hovering near the head. Dominant postures, on the other hand, tended to display arms akimbo (hands on hips, elbows out) with the head facing forward.
To Van Cappellen, this suggests that emotions are fully embodied—and not only communicated in the face. “We’re finding signature arm positions for each emotion,” she says. This means that “the expression production of emotions is a full-body experience.”
Van Cappellen also wanted to know if other people seeing the mannequins could recognize the feelings being expressed by different postures. For this, she had a new group of participants look at photos of mannequins posed in many different ways, with arm and head positions varying but with expansiveness being kept constant. Then, she had participants rate the mannequins on how well they expressed various emotional qualities—like dominance, extraversion, warmth, energy, competence, and overall positive and negative feelings.
Mirroring earlier results, the participants found that expansive postures with arms held high represented positive emotion—like extraversion and warmth—with arms akimbo representing dominance and negative emotion. This supports the idea that people look to body language to read others’ emotions.
“We’re constantly trying to know what another person is feeling and trying to infer what they’re going to do—and that comes [in part] from their body posture,” says Van Cappellen.
How posture influences your feelings
These findings raise an interesting question: Do postures only communicate our feelings or could putting ourselves into a particular posture change the way we feel? To find out, Van Cappellen and her team did another study.
People were fitted with sensors to measure their nervous system and cardiac function and asked to strike one of three poses: hands raised and head uplifted; hands folded in front, head looking down; or arms at sides and looking straight ahead. To make sure participants didn’t know that the researchers were interested in posture, they were told that the experiment was about emotional and physiological responses people had to music, and they listened to emotionally ambiguous music (by Enya) while holding their pose for two minutes.
Afterward, the participants reported on how they felt listening to the music; then, their emotions were compared to the physiological markers being measured. The results showed that participants in a posture with raised arms and heads tilted upward experienced the music as more positive and had more positive feeling overall than those in other poses.
“This study shows that assuming particular postures can create or construct an emotion experience,” says Van Cappellen. “A typical joy posture elicits more positive emotions than other postures.”
Van Cappellen isn’t clear why this happens, exactly. Heart rate variability was also higher in the group holding their arms overhead, but this didn’t seem to be tied to the positive feelings. It could be that she and her colleagues just didn’t happen to measure the right things and that physiology could still play a role.
Or it could be that when you hold yourself in a particular way, it brings to mind memories of how you felt other times in that posture, and that’s what prompts the feelings. She points to how people often tend to raise their arms and look up when giving thanks in religious ceremonies or when practicing yoga, and that might be a reason why they experience positive feelings. But, she says, more research is needed to see how people express feelings with their bodies in different contexts and whether or not manipulations make them feel differently.
Either way, her research implies that our body posture helps express our emotions and may help us feel certain emotions, too. This could be consequential—not just in the lab, but in real life, where it’s useful to know how we and other people are feeling in a given situation.
“Emotion expression is what enables social relationships, and we’re showing that you could potentially rewire yourself using different postures,” she says. “It’s critical that we get more information about what these postures look like and what they express. Otherwise, we can get this wrong.”