The Dangers of Faking Emotion

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emily Rautenberg
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing public affairs

Maintaining a crisp appearance, rendering sharp salutes, using proper customs and courtesies, and keeping military bearing are all vital parts of the military image and culture.

These small pieces all work together to exude and demand respect. But, is this seemingly well-mannered demeanor an indicator of morality?

“How deep does surface conduct go?” writes Nancy Sherman, author of “Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind.” In her book, Sherman discusses the connections between the military and the stoic philosophy, which is a belief that happiness stems from being in control of one’s own emotions.


“Do manners lead to morals, etiquette to ethics? Is good conduct a part of good character?” she writes.

This is what Jaclyn Urmey, Director of Psychological Health at the 514th Air Mobility Wing, asked her class to think about during “Manners & Morals,” the third session in her ongoing discuss of Sherman’s book.

“Character represents what about us?” Urmey asked. “I think your character depends on how you were raised,” one participant said. “And it’s really our core values.”

“Character comes from the inside, but it’s something you see on the outside,” said another.

“How can you read someone’s morals without even talking to them?” she asked the class.

The class’s answers included “body language,” “posture,” “social media feeds,” and “how they present themselves” as all being indicators of a person’s morality. One member said this judgement is usually a gut reaction.

The group also discussed external motivators and how they can help someone adopt or reject certain values and behaviors.

“Can motivation help recognize something important to a person?” asked Urmey. “Does inner virtue matter more? In a way, good conduct is a way of showing respect. What do regulations have to do with honor and morals?”

If a person is displaying good conduct, and appearing respectful, is that then a sign that they have a sense of morality? In the military, where core values are emphasized so heavily, do these values become our own? Or, are these values and this well-mannered attitude a farce for many service members? Are the rules and regulations of the military followed out of fear, possibly of retribution, or are they firmly believed?

“Much military conduct is mindless drill and compliance motivated by fear of those higher up in the chain of command,” Sherman writes. “Can motivation so tightly pegged to reward and punishment still help an individual secure inner virtue? If Stoic doctrine is right—that inner virtue is what matters—then shouldn’t the focus be primarily on the inside, on motives of virtue, and not on the external trappings of deference and decorum?”

“When we follow codes of conduct or rituals of decorum, we are often just playacting,” Sherman writes.

Not everyone in the class liked this idea. For many, the military is such a big part of their life, the idea that they are just “pretending” can be very offensive. The argument was made, however, that being able to recognize that the behaviors and mindsets expected at work in the military are vastly different from the civilian world, as well as at home.

For example, while standing at attention, saluting, etc. might be appropriate in the military, is it appropriate at home with your spouse or children?

Urmey said that in some cases, those who are not getting the respect they feel they deserve in one area of their life may end up demanding it in another part of their life.

Even if you do not always agree with military policies, however, you still follow them anyway, she said. Military bearing and uniformity can then convey a sense of transparency about morality to the public.

Additionally, Urmey cited a study done in which facial expressions and brain activity were analyzed. In one group, participants experienced a genuine emotion and showed it on their face. Another group was instructed to display and emotion on their face, even though they weren’t experiencing. The study found that by faking a facial expression, a person could actually start to experience the emotion tied to that expression.

“You might actually wind up feeling the way your face is showing,” Urmey said. “But, what about not making faces? What about having a straight-faced demeanor, such as what is expected in the military?”

The class then discussed the possibility of the opposite effect happening. By keeping an expressionless face, it may be possible to become expressionless yourself. You could become numb, detached, and stoic.

“As military members, we are emotionally conditioned not to feel emotions,” Urmey continued.

Traditional reservists provide a unique perspective here. They are able to experience “normal” life in the civilian world, as well as understand, respect, and live the world of military regulations, which may be a source of “disconnection from reality.”

“Reservists then have the opportunity to disconnect from the thing that disconnects them from ‘reality,’” Urmey said.

“As a reservist who was deployed with all active duty personnel—it was different,” one class attendee said.

“Putting on a uniform can change one’s attitude and self-perception, as well as how one is perceived by others,” Sherman writes.

“So, even our outer appearances, and all this stuff we think might be superficial, can end up being morally important,” concluded Urmey.

The next class in the series, “A Warrior’s Anger,” will be held during the April Unit Training Assembly.