Dynamic emotional expressions do not modulate responses to gestures

Harry Farmer, Raqeeb Mahmood, Samantha E.A. Gregory, Polina Tishina, Antonia F. de C. Hamilton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The tendency to imitate the actions of others appears to be a fundamental aspect of human social interaction. Emotional expressions are a particularly salient form of social stimuli (Vuilleumier & Schwartz, 2001) but their relationship to imitative behaviour is currently unclear. In this paper we report the results of five studies which investigated the effect of a target's dynamic emotional stimuli on participants' tendency to respond compatibly to the target's actions. Experiment one examined the effect of dynamic emotional expressions on the automatic imitation of opening and closing hand movements. Experiment two used the same basic paradigm but added gaze direction as an additional factor. Experiment three investigated the effect of dynamic emotional expressions on compatibility responses to handshakes. Experiment four investigated whether dynamic emotional expressions modulated response to valenced social gestures. Finally, experiment five compared the effects of dynamic and static emotional expressions on participants' automatic imitation of finger lifting. Across all five studies we reliably elicited a compatibility effect however, none of the studies found a significant modulating effect of emotional expression. This null effect was also supported by a random effects meta-analysis and a series of Bayesian t-tests. Nevertheless, these results must be caveated by the fact that our studies had limited power to detect effect sizes below d = 0.4. We conclude by situating our findings within the literature, suggesting that the effect of emotional expressions on automatic imitation is, at best, minimal.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103226
JournalActa Psychologica
Early online date10 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license

Funding: This work was supported by European Research Council (http://erc.europa.eu/) grant 313398-INTERACT. Dr Gregory was supported by an Experimental Psychology Society Study Visit Grant.


  • Automatic imitation
  • Emotion
  • Facial expressions
  • Meaningful gestures
  • Stimulus response compatibility


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