“You are never fully dressed without a smile” (But it makes you look older)

Smiles are . . .  Powerful.  Infectious.  Uplifting. . . .and Aging?

In my younger days, I refereed high school and collegiate basketball and was often told that I needed to stop smiling on the court.  As one of my colleagues said, smiling made me look young, too attractive, not serious enough, and like I was having too good of a time to be calling fouls, especially as a female referee!   My question – why did smiling as a female referee have to put me at such a disadvantage?

What we think we know. . .

Folk wisdom purports that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown (but see this article from snopes.com), and the media frequently portrays the belief that smiles lead to youthfulness, attractiveness, and likability.  Science, based on the facial feedback sufficiency hypothesis, says “smiling makes us feel better, while frowning makes us feel worse”, which suggests that smiling is also correlated with our emotions and is capable of modulating our moods.

.  .  . so we should all turn our frowns around into upside down rainbows?

While there is some truth in these compelling beliefs presented by folk wisdom, media, and science, it seems that we are not 100% correct in our perceptions of smiles.

What we actually know. . .

Science has confirmed that people generally associate positive feelings with smiling people, particularly those that are smiling genuinely. Can you tell which of the pictures below is the less sincere smile (the adult, not the baby)?

They are both nice smiles, but the image on the left is “less sincere” – can you hurry up and take the picture please! – whereas the image on the right is a genuine, Duchenne smile.  The difference between them is that the genuine smile has more “crinkled” eyes and teeth showing while the “less sincere” smile loses some of the “crinkles” and the bottom teeth disappear.

These genuine smiles inspire others to think we are happy, attractive, and successful; however, these beliefs may be moderated by the sex of the individual displaying them and the context in which they are displayed. When women smile, they are interpreted as warm, nurturing, subservient, and possibly socially uneasy whereas smiling men are perceived as ineffective in some contexts. Unfortunately, social norms both prescribe and proscribe the frequency and context in which smiles are produced by men and women – a topic to be examined at another time.

Smiles are Age Defying

The question asked by researchers Tzvi Ganel and Melvyn Goodale in a recent study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, was how were smiles perceived in terms of age? Common knowledge perpetuates the belief that smiling people are more youthful.  However, in a previous study, Ganel experimentally demonstrated that, in fact, smiling people were rated as older, whether the person was a man or a woman.

In the study reported in this article, Ganel and Goodale tested if undergraduate students would express their common-knowledge bias while providing age ratings of faces during experimental conditions.  That is, would the participants rate the images of smiling people as older but still maintain that the smiling person looked younger when asked retrospectively?

To assess this question, the researchers turned to male and female participants and presented them with matched sets of photographs in which the individual was smiling or presenting a neutral facial expression. The smiling and neutral pictures were split into two groups with a total of four conditions, and then counterbalanced, so that the participants did not rate the same face presenting both a smile and a frown, thereby controlling for any familiarity effect.

The participants first rated a presented face (smiling or neutral) with their most accurate age rating. Then, unexpectedly, participants were also asked to provide an average age estimation for the smiling faces and the neutral faces they had just viewed. Additionally, participants were asked to endorse one of the following statements: (1) smiling has no effect on perceived age; (2) smiling makes people look younger; or (3) smiling makes people look older.

The results of the first experiment replicated the previous study in which smiling pictures were rated as older than the neutral expression pictures (compare the dark gray bar against the lighter one in the first pair of bars in the figure below). And despite having just seen these images and providing older age ratings, the participants continued to endorse the belief that smiling makes people look younger (dark gray bars in the second pair of bars in the figure below). In other words, people rate smiling faces as older when they see them, but people think that smiling faces make people look younger.

A second experiment was performed with the same methodology, except for an additional surprise condition. That is, as shown in the figure below, some of the faces showed a surprised expression (the third image of the face below).

The participants in Experiment 2 also rated the smiling faces (dark gray bar in the first set of bars in the figure below) as significantly older than the neutral models (middle light gray bar in the first set of bars in the figure below), while still maintaining afterwards that the smiling faces looked younger (first dark gray bar in the second set of bars in the figure below). Interestingly, the participants rated the surprised faces as younger than faces in either of the other two conditions (last light gray bar in both sets of bars).  The participants did not show any difference in their retrospective ratings of neutral or surprised expressions, however, after rating the surprised faces as younger initially.

The authors concluded that despite having direct evidence to the contrary, participants still maintained that smiling made someone more youthful.

“Youth is something I never want to take for granted. I just want to smile and live life.” ~ Tyler, the Creator

While I appreciate this youthful misperception with my own emergence of wrinkles, perpetuating this incorrect, implicit bias could have significant social implications. For example, maintaining the belief that smiles signify youthfulness could unfairly compromise the influence of a therapist, a teacher, a police officer, or even a referee.  And yet, as Mother Teresa stated:

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

Psychonomics article focused on in this post:

Ganel, T., & Goodale, M. A.  (2017). The effects of smiling on perceived age defy belief. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. doi: 10.3758/s13423-017-1306-8

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