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When it's time to play in the big game against your fiercest rivals, you might put on your "game face." But how much does this expression affect your opponents? And might you also be affecting yourself?

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Picture the most intense  competition you’ve ever seen. Maybe it was a rivalry football game, or  the final round in an Olympic archery match.

Whatever you’re picturing, the  competitors probably don’t look cheerful. They might look serious, angry, or even hostile. In other words, they’ve got their game face on.

The idea here is that a laser-focused  expression can disarm opponents and make them feel uneasy and anxious. But according to psychology research,  it can also do more than that:. Putting on your game face may  help your performance, too.

It’s maybe not that surprising  that many people avoid angry faces. But the cool thing is, those  reactions are measurable, so we can get a sense of exactly how  these expressions affect us and why. Like, in a 2018 study, researchers  showed 37 people images of faces that were happy, neutral, or angry.

Then, they closely measured the  subjects’ electrodermal activity. Electrodermal activity can mean a couple of things either the electrical output of nerves,   or how electric current travels  as it passes over our skin. But basically, it’s a way to  see how much someone is sweating and by extension, how stressed they are.

That’s because fear and anxiety  flood your system with hormones that boost your heart rate and get  you ready for physical activity. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response  that helps protect you from danger, and part of that response is sweat. In the study, those who saw an angry  face produced almost one and a half times more electrodermal activity than when  they were exposed to a neutral one.

So, the faces seemed to stress them out. And beyond that, the researchers also  found that the expression people were shown was related to the amount of  personal space they needed. It varies a lot by person, but on  average, studies suggest we tend to prefer a roughly 30-centimeter bubble around us.

But in this study, people who saw an  angry face said their comfort zone was about 30% bigger on average,  or almost 40 centimeters. Based on all this, you might think that  a game face is definitely the way to go. Like, if you have a chance to stress out your  opponent and keep them away from you, cool!

Except… things are more complicated  than what we see in the lab. Like, stress is an important  factor in sports performance, but it also affects people differently  based on their personality and background. For some, a little stress might be motivating but for others, that same amount  will be totally overwhelming.

Everyone’s comfort zone is different  and depends on a bunch of factors, including stress management and experience. Genetics even plays a role, since all kinds  of genes are related to fear and anxiety. So, putting on a game face  might be a double-edged sword:.

You might psych out some players… or  you might motivate them even more. But, hey: That doesn’t mean you should  retire your well-practiced scowl, because studies also show that putting  one on can help you perform better. At least, on some tasks.

This kind of connection between facial  expression and physiology is called facial feedback hypothesis. The idea is that, no matter what you’re feeling, the physical act of expressing an emotion  will cause your body to emulate that. And it can affect how you feel — although  how much depends on the situation.

Now, evidence for this hypothesis is pretty mixed,  so not all psychologists are on board with it. But some researchers do think that it may be  related to why a game face can help us out. For instance, take this study:.

In a 2019 paper, a group of researchers  had 62 participants do various challenges. In one, they were basically put  through a perfectionist’s nightmare:. They were told to put together a 100-piece  black and white puzzle... in only five minutes.

The key was, before they started, some participants were shown examples  of a “game face” from pro athletes, and were asked to replicate  it during the challenge. Other participants weren’t given any  instructions about facial expressions. In the end, this second group completed  about seven pieces on average.

But those who got their game face on completed  an average of 11 pieces — about 60% more! As for why, the researchers  proposed that this could be another application of the  facial feedback hypothesis. Except, instead of facial expressions  triggering a certain emotion, the subject’s brains were linking  those faces with a certain behavior.

See, over time, your brain learns to  group different things and sensations, which helps it sort new  information faster and easier. And this includes facial expressions. So, in this study, subjects’ brains  may have associated their “game face” with accomplishing a hard task — one that  required a boost in memory and performance.

Essentially, the “game face” could  have been signaling to their brains that they needed to pay more  attention and work harder. Now, when it comes to personal performance  in physical challenges like sports, game faces are harder to study, mostly,  because people tend to make them even when they’re told not to. But there is some support for them.

Like, one study looked at more than 4000 images  of World Cup soccer players from over 300 teams. And it found that players who wore  angry expressions gave up fewer goals. It’s hard to say why without  more controlled studies, but some researchers have suggested that  anger can be helpful for physical tasks.

Specifically, if the task is something  you might naturally do while angry. Like, I don’t know, kick  something really, really hard. Though again, we’ll need more  detailed studies to know for sure.

Still, the next time you’re  getting ready for the big game, or the next time you’re preparing  for a big recital or presentation… maybe give it a try! It might just give you the edge you need. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

We’re always looking for new stories about how  our brains work or why we do the things we do. So if you have any questions or ideas for  future episodes, we’d love to hear them! And if you’re a patron, you can  be sure we see your question by leaving it in our patron inbox  over at [♩OUTRO].