Can You Turn the World on With Your Smile?
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2007
Humans have long expressed positive feelings with smiles and laughter. Some people light up the room their smile, others not so much. When you’re smiling, the whole world is said to smile back. And laughter is similarly infectious. Of course, not all smiles are alike. Because of her smile, if that is what it is, the Mona Lisa’s expression has bewitched us since da Vinci painted her in the 16th century. And the meaning of a smile is context dependent. The Situationist last week looked into cultural influences on facial expressions.
Some studies have shown that smiling and laughter profoundly influence our emotions and health. Several researchers have suggested that laughter really is the best medicine, or at least a darn good one. But how much can laughter really cure? Do people who laugh more really heal faster? The power of the smile has been a topic of research for scientists and marketers alike. The following excerpts, drawn from several articles, illustrate some of the directions and bending questions facing laugh researchers.
* * *
In their research, [Julie] Woodzicka and [Steven] Martinenza conducted mock job interviews with 101 college students, videotaping and coding the duration and intensity of participants’ smiles using a facial-action coding system that relies on a combination of mouth and eye movements to determine fake smiles from genuine ones. They hoped to find out why people fake smiles and gauge their awareness of it.
So far, based on preliminary results, Woodzicka and Martinenza find women tend to fake smiles more than men do and are more aware of these inclinations.
The reason? “Women smile more to appease,” Woodzicka posits. “When they become uncomfortable, they put on a smile to show that they will do whatever they need to get through the situation.”
For example, they were likely to report reasons for a fake smile such as they were trying to please the interviewer, according to their preliminary findings. Men, however, tended to be less other-focused when smiling, reporting that they “wanted to appear like a nice person,” or that they were amused at something that was said.
* * *
by Shannon Proudfoot
Matthew Ansfield was fishing with a group of high school buddies with too many lures in a small area. Suddenly, a hook sliced through his hand.
His friends helped him, of course – but only after they’d picked themselves up off the ground and gained control of their laughter.
The incident led Ansfield into a new area of study. “I started wondering if everyone did that, or if my friends were just freaks,” says the associate psychology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.
His research revealed that many people — especially men — react to distress by smiling, and the more upset they are, the more they grin. That’s because people know on some level that “putting on a happy face” makes them feel better. Smiling can be a coping mechanism adopted under duress.
In Ansfield’s study, published in the June issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 80 men and 80 women watched a selection of amusing, neutral or disgusting videos. The amusing videos included stand-up comedians, the neutral ones documentaries and the upsetting ones footage such as the autopsy of a human eyeball or a tribe attacking a cow with bows and arrows, then drinking the blood spurting out of its neck.
Oddly, volunteers smiled 22 per cent of the time while viewing the disturbing segments – just as often as they showed a disgusted expression. Men smiled twice as much as women (30 per cent compared to 15 per cent), and they grinned even more (46 per cent of the time) while watching the upsetting footage with another man in the room.
Previous studies showed women smile more than men in almost every other situation, Ansfield says. Social expectations or “display rules” dictate that women are more emotionally expressive than men, so it’s acceptable and even desirable for them to smile more. But in upsetting situations, men are expected to “be stoic” and smiling may provide a psychological release valve that allows them to keep their distressed feelings under wraps, he says – especially in the presence of another man.
The irony is that smiling while upset might make people feel a bit better inside, but the “inappropriate” reaction causes others to view them as less socially acceptable and even less likable, according to Ansfield’s research.
“Often people will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, I would never do that.’ And they may be right – they would never do that, they would cry, perhaps,” says Dr. Howard Book, an associate professor of psychiatry who specializes in emotional intelligence at the University of Toronto. “But they’re not really understanding what’s going on in that person’s mind at a deeper level.”
When it comes to grieving, funeral service professionals learn to promote the idea that “everything is normal,” says Sue Lasher, manager of Foster’s Garden Chapel in Calgary. They see families laughing and joking their way through plans for a loved one’s funeral, sobbing inconsolably or swinging wildly between the two, she says, and they don’t judge any of it.
“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘You must think I’m terrible because I’m laughing.’ And we say, ‘No, you do whatever you need to do,'” she says. “We just have to make families understand that whatever they’re going through is completely normal, and it’s OK.”
* * *
Subliminal images of smiling faces may make consumers more willing to try new things, new research suggests.
Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found people were more likely to be interested in a “mystery beverage” if they’d just looked at a series of photos including fleeting glimpses of smiling people. Subliminal images of frowning faces, meanwhile, made the subjects less interested in the drink.
The findings suggest that the human mind is much more attuned to facial expressions — including ones barely noticed — than people might realize, said study author Piotr Winkielman, an associate professor of psychology.
“Our mind becomes very practiced at picking up these cues, whether it’s smiling or frowning,” Winkielman said. Smiles “can activate a process in your brain that basically makes you more positively predisposed to whatever comes next.”
Winkielman and his colleagues designed two experiments to force students to focus their thoughts on a mystery beverage — actually a concoction of water, sugar and lemon-lime Kool-Aid.
Before each experiment, the students looked at photos of a series of neutral faces. Smiling or frowning faces were also embedded in the photos, but were displayed too fleetingly for subjects to consciously notice. The researchers had previously tested the students to make sure they couldn’t detect the subliminal photos.
The idea was to see whether the smiling and frowning faces primed the students to be more willing to try something new.
Winkielman presented his findings May 26 at the American Psychological Society annual meeting, in Los Angeles.
In the first experiment, 39 undergraduate students were allowed to drink as much of the unnamed beverage as they wanted. Thirsty subjects drank twice as much after viewing the happy faces as those who looked at unhappy faces, Winkielman reported.
In the second experiment among 29 students given a sip of the beverage, the thirstiest subjects primed by a smiling face wanted to spend 38 cents for a full drink, while those primed by a frowning face only wanted to spend 10 cents.
Since people have been accustomed to reading faces since infancy, it makes sense that they’d be fine-tuned to these expressions, Winkielman explained. “Your brain has maybe learned to use those cues and adjust your behavior without you realizing it,” he said. “You can think of it as happy faces being a general ‘go’ signal.”
Craig A. Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, said the findings suggest that people don’t always consciously feel the emotions that actually influence what they do or buy. “You’re not aware that you’re feeling angry or sad, yet you behave in ways that are consistent with that feeling,” Smith said.
By providing evidence of “unconscious” emotion, the study adds more support to the idea that emotions have a physical basis in the brain, he said.