New Research Equates Smiling With Lack of Power

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What’s in a smile?

Apparently a lot.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans this past week, researchers revealed that social reflexes determine when, at who and how much we smile.

The Wall Street Journal reports that researchers analyzed the involuntary facial responses that are at play when we return or suppress a smile and found that we reflexively share or conceal a smile based on rank, power and status. (It’s also been found that smiling reduces stress, but that’s a story for another time.)

These subconscious facial expressions (nicknamed “The Boss Effect”) show how the status and power of others affects our neurobiology. According to this phenomenon, while we tend to recognize our own face first in a group of photographs, in some circumstances, we respond first to a picture of our boss.

This type of reaction varies by culture, though. For instance, Chinese workers reacted most quickly to a picture of their direct supervisor, but only if that supervisor had the power to give them a negative job evaluation. In the U.S., employees reacted fastest to a supervisor whom they perceived as more socially influential.

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Researchers at the University of California at San Diego went more in depth to explain how social pressure affects our facial expressions. Cognitive neuroscientist Evan Carr divided 55 male and female students into two categories—those who felt more powerful and those who felt less.

The subjects were then shown videos of people who they were told held a high-ranking position, like a physician, or a low-ranking job, like a fast-food restaurant worker. Carr recorded the students’ involuntary facial expressions as they watched the videos and found that whether they unconsciously mimicked the facial expressions of others depended on the status of the person they watched.

People who felt powerful themselves rarely returned a high-ranking person’s smile, but smiled readily at those who they perceived to be lower ranking. Those who felt less powerful tended to mimic everyone else’s smiles.

Carr explained that those who felt powerful would not readily return the smiles of other high-ranking people, probably because they felt competitive, causing them to suppress their smiles. “Your feelings about power and status seem to dictate how much you are willing to return a smile to another person,” he said.

So what does this mean for us? You could constantly monitor your facial expressions or never smile to relay your feeling of power. But here’s a novel idea: Go ahead, smile when you feel like it! Here, you can smile at this guy who is performing an act of kindness every day.