The influence of facial signals on the automatic imitation of hand actions

Emily E. Butler*, Robert Ward, Richard Ramsey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
14 Downloads (Pure)


Imitation and facial signals are fundamental social cues that guide interactions with others, but little is known regarding the relationship between these behaviors. It is clear that during expression detection, we imitate observed expressions by engaging similar facial muscles. It is proposed that a cognitive system, which matches observed and performed actions, controls imitation and contributes to emotion understanding. However, there is little known regarding the consequences of recognizing affective states for other forms of imitation, which are not inherently tied to the observed emotion. The current study investigated the hypothesis that facial cue valence would modulate automatic imitation of hand actions. To test this hypothesis, we paired different types of facial cue with an automatic imitation task. Experiments 1 and 2 demonstrated that a smile prompted greater automatic imitation than angry and neutral expressions. Additionally, a meta-analysis of this and previous studies suggests that both happy and angry expressions increase imitation compared to neutral expressions. By contrast, Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrated that invariant facial cues, which signal trait-levels of agreeableness, had no impact on imitation. Despite readily identifying trait-based facial signals, levels of agreeableness did not differentially modulate automatic imitation. Further, a Bayesian analysis showed that the null effect was between 2 and 5 times more likely than the experimental effect. Therefore, we show that imitation systems are more sensitive to prosocial facial signals that indicate “in the moment” states than enduring traits. These data support the view that a smile primes multiple forms of imitation including the copying actions that are not inherently affective. The influence of expression detection on wider forms of imitation may contribute to facilitating interactions between individuals, such as building rapport and affiliation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1653
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2016. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • imitation
  • automatic
  • face signals
  • social cognition


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