A number of studies have shown that individuals often spontaneously mimic the facial expressions of others, a tendency known as facial mimicry. This tendency has generally been considered a reflex-like "automatic" response, but several recent studies have shown that the degree of mimicry may be moderated by contextual information. However, the cognitive and motivational factors underlying the contextual moderation of facial mimicry require further empirical investigation. In this study, we present evidence that the degree to which participants spontaneously mimic a target's facial expressions depends on whether participants are motivated to infer the target's emotional state. In the first study we show that facial mimicry, assessed by facial electromyography, occurs more frequently when participants are specifically instructed to infer a target's emotional state than when given no instruction. In the second study, we replicate this effect using the Facial Action Coding System to show that participants are more likely to mimic facial expressions of emotion when they are asked to infer the target's emotional state, rather than make inferences about a physical trait unrelated to emotion. These results provide convergent evidence that the explicit goal of understanding a target's emotional state affects the degree of facial mimicry shown by the perceiver, suggesting moderation of reflex-like motor activities by higher cognitive processes.
Murata, A., Saito, H., Schug, J., Ogawa, K., & Kameda, T. (2016). Spontaneous facial mimicry is enhanced by the goal of inferring emotional states: evidence for moderation of “automatic” mimicry by higher cognitive processes. PloS one, 11(4), e0153128.