Mimicking Minds: How to Transfer Happiness For Free

“Why so serious?” said the Joker.

By smiling to others, those others are more likely to mimic us and smile back by way of the chameleon effect and our mirror neuron system. These two potentially obscure concepts aside, you’re not surprised, are you? Well, neither am I surprised that you’re not!

We already know that babies do this and, thanks to Edward Tronick’s 1975 “Still-Face Experiments”, we know that if we stop engaging in this reciprocal smiling and all-around engagement, babies show behaviors akin to panicking and hopelessness. I don’t see why adults should be any different. Smiling is an important social behavior that serves to create and strengthen bonds, so it makes sense why it is prone to imitation.

By the way, you can check out the still-face experiment live right here. It never fails to frustrate me:

To be transparent about terminology, “the chameleon effect” describes the human tendency to passively and unintentionally mimic the mannerisms of those with whom we are interacting (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999), while the “mirror neuron system” is a neurophysiological network of visuomotor neurons that activate when we complete an action and when we view someone else completing that same or similar action. It is thus known to play a key role in bringing about this pattern of imitations outlined by the chameleon effect.

Well, is the mimicking always so passive or apathetic in its effects? We’ll get to that soon.

First, it is important to note that research on mirror neurons hasn’t always been so clear and what began as something discovered in monkey brains took a while before it could be empirically located in humans as opposed to just assuming we had it too as fellow primates (Keysers & Gazzola, 2010). In addition, one of the properties of mirror neuron activation is that it requires object-oriented interaction (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004), and what object are we interacting with when we smile? None it seems.

What makes studying smiling even more difficult is that it has a huge social dimension that is not replicable in labs and actions like smiling create noise in neuroimaging signals (Caruana et al., 2017). Thus, this study by Caruana and colleagues (2017) did something ingenious. They studied the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC) of a patient with drug-resistant local epilepsy who was having some electrodes implanted in his brain as part of a presurgical evaluation. I mention this here simply because it explains why they were able to stimulate his brain without ethical implications; the fact of epilepsy had no impact on the results, the study notes.

They stimulated this area first and observed that each time, it induced in the patient a smiling grimace that the patient themselves could not justify. They then observed that the same area was activated the most when the patient was subsequently shown video clips of people laughing without audio. Laughing was used because it is always preceded by smiling and it involves the same facial muscles and social functions, so was therefore deemed related enough that the authors didn’t feel like they were testing two different things. Fair.

Anyways, could this only show that the visual and motor neurons involved are just located in the same place in the brain instead of being the same, they ask? Maybe, but if that were the case, it would be nonetheless difficult to imagine these two being in the same place and not communicating; and if they communicate, the authors state, then the mirror neurons for smiling can be said to be harbored in the pACC. 

Nevertheless, what I’m trying to get at is more than just uninvested, surface-level parroting. That’s quite boring, isn’t it?

This study I just mentioned involves mimicking without reference to affective response. However, this same group of scientists has previously found that the pACC is somewhat implicated in mirth (Caruana et al., 2017).

Why is this curious? Because if emotions weren’t also involved, then what would be amazing about our tendency to mimic each other’s smiles? If we just smiled back plainly at each other without being at all affected then our mimicking would seem useless or deceptive….and borderline psychopathic. 

Here’s where the facial feedback hypothesis comes into play and the point can finally be driven home.

In The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2009), the facial feedback hypothesis states that “facial movements associated with an emotion will induce the corresponding emotional state”. Although the role of physiological feedback vs. cognitive interpretation is disputed with regards to this hypothesis, that’s beside the point. What matters is that a smile can eventually generate happiness regardless of what mediates this effect. 

Thus, here is the amazing and yet simple message that arises from all this: if you smile, you can get other people around you to smile too. Not only that, but the smiling that you’ve now induced in them will likely lead to their happiness. Therefore, even with very little effort, you can not just ‘transfer’ happiness to others, but have it directly produced inside them.

One smile is really all it takes to make someone’s day better. Easy and free of charge. So if you’re wondering how to make people happy, possibly without any real sacrifice on your end, just smile wide.

(and what of our indisposition to help others be happy if that means giving something up?…Now that’s a topic for for another day).

I guess the Joker was low-key trying to get you not only to smile, but be happy. Damn, who would have thought?


Caruana, F., Avanzini, P., Gozzo, F., Pelliccia, V., Casaceli, G., & Rizzolatti, G.

(2017). A mirror mechanism for smiling in the anterior

cingulate cortex. Emotion, 17(2), 187–190.


Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–

behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality

and Social  Psychology, 76(6), 893–

910. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.76.6.893

SAGE Publications, Inc. (2009). Facial-feedback hypothesis. In L. E. Sullivan

(Ed.), The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences

(Vols. 1-3, p. 197). SAGE Publications, Inc.


Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L., 2004. The mirror-neuron system. Annual

Review of Neuroscience, 27. 169–192.


Keyers, C., & Gazzola, V., 2010. Social Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons

Recorded in Humans. Current Biology, 20(8), R353–R354.


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