I've read about a study where they found that people who were forced to keep a smile-like face were reportedly happier than those who were forced to stay in a frown-like a face. Similarly, could onions induce sadness by forcing one to cry?

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question! A tip for it to be even better received: whenever you write 'I read' in a question, also link to the exact source you read. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Jun 29 '18 at 8:07

I assume you're referring to the experiment by Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) in which people rated a cartoon as funnier when they had to hold their face in a smile shape by gripping a pencil in their teeth.

This has been applied to negative affect by Larsen, Kasimatis, and Frey (1992) who had participants furrow their brows during an activity. Golf tees were attached to their eyebrows such that furrowing the brow caused the tips of the tees to touch together. Participants showed more negative emotion in the brow furrowing condition (in which they were instructed to keep the tips of the tees touching).

Both studies, however, hypothesize that the effects are due to facial expression, specifically, to sensations of activating the muscles associated with positive or negative emotions. In the onion paradigm that you propose, it is unclear which (if any) emotion-relevant muscle activations would happen in conjunction with eye irritation.

Nobody that I know of has studied whether eye irritation or production of tears (independent of the accompanying facial expressions associated with sadness) will lead to an increase in sadness.

A competing theory might be that since crying can be cathartic, tear production might make people feel better rather than worse. However the research support for crying and catharsis is mixed and depends heavily on the context of the crying (Bylsma, Vingerhoets, & Rottenberg, 2008).

Strack et al., J Personality Social Psych (1998); 54(5): 768-7

Larsen et al., Cognition and emotion (1992); 6(5): 321-338

Bylsma et al., J Social and Clinical Psych (2008), 27(10): 1165-1187

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    $\begingroup$ A good answer well referenced +1 $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 26 '18 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ I know right away I would perceive a cartoon more negatively if I had this thing on my brow :) $\endgroup$ – Probably Jul 6 '18 at 10:54

Short answer

Onions produce the irritant syn-propanethial-S-oxide. It stimulates the eyes' lachrymal glands and thereby stimulate the release tears (source: Library of Congress). The watering of the eye is hence the consequence of a physical irritant and has nothing to do with emotions whatsoever.

Anecdotally spoken, chopping onions agitates me more than it makes me sad, as I can't see what I'm doing through the tears while I'm hungry :)

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    $\begingroup$ The other answer mentions that the effect may be related to "...sensations of activating the muscles..." while simply biting a pencil. How can we be so a priori certain that sensations of weeping or watering of the eyes could not result in a similar effect? Perhaps it's not so cut and dried (pun intended) ;-) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 1 '18 at 5:29
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh I'm afraid I don't get your point. I think it's a matter of causation. The cause of tears can be emotional, or physical. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jul 1 '18 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ oh, assuming the explanation in the other answer is correct and that my understanding of the explanation is correct as well, the emotional response (or in this case the modification of it) is a result of the sensation of the movement of facial muscles necessary to hold a pencil in one's mouth. So if that sensation in the face can cause something to seem funnier, why would it necessarily be clear that the sensation of tears could not also have an emotional effect? Gripping a pencil between the teeth and tearing from an onion seem similarly unrelated to emotions. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jul 1 '18 at 11:03
  • $\begingroup$ The analogy is fine, but the two are unrelated. The chemicals are irritants and they hurt physically. I cannot see the link between the two studies that might warrant the interpretation of the former to explain a purely hypothetical thought of the other. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Jul 1 '18 at 11:48

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