The Subtle Smile

To watch a video interview with Dr. Marianne LaFrance, click here.

You sit on a wooden chair in a five-star restaurant, nervously picking at your food across from your date, and, looking up, you see it: a quick, shining glint of white. You knock on the door to your advisor’s office, and as you enter, and you are greeted by a calm and courteous gleam. You see your high-school friend for the first time in months, and you cannot help but lift the corners of your mouth. Smiles. What can these simple smiles mean? How are smiles different for men and women? And more broadly, what can smiles reveal to us about our society and culture? Professor Marianne LaFrance investigates how smiles and other forms of non-verbal communication can provide answers to these very questions.

A professor of Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, as well as an author of the well acclaimed book Lip Service, LaFrance has provided numerous insights to the roles that smiling and non-verbal communication play in our everyday encounters. According to LaFrance, it’s not the words, “it’s the facial expressions; it’s the tone of voice; it’s all these other things that tell the tale.”

The Purpose of Smiling

Within the realm of non-verbal communication, LaFrance and other social psychologists have focused their studies on smiling because it is one of the most revealing yet overlooked aspects of our lives. In modern culture, LaFrance asserts that the main purpose of smiling is to form, sustain, and repair interpersonal relationships.

One of the reasons smiling successfully creates these relationships is that smiling triggers happiness. Dr. Andreas Hennenlotter of the Technical University of Munich used functional MRI machines to measure brain activity in emotional processing centers of the brain. During the first experiment, participants naturally smiled, but the second time, Hennenlotter injected Botox into the checks of the participants, preventing them from smiling and again measured the brain activity. Hennenlotter found that the physical act of smiling affected the neural processing of emotional stimuli and in turn activated the happiness circuitry of our brain.

Furthermore, experimental data shows that smiling is not only expected during formation of relationships but also that it is necessary. Individuals with brain lesions, physical malfunctions, psychological disorders, or other conditions that lead to loss of facial control have trouble forming substantive relationships. “We need to connect, belong, and have relationships,” summarizes LaFrance, “and smiling helps us achieve this.”

Different Types of Smiles

While the main objective of smiles may be cohesive, the characteristics of smiles are certainly not. Social psychologists have divided the realm of smiles into two categories: Duchenne, or genuine, smiles and fabricated, or fake, smiles.

The differences between these two types include more than just positive or negative stimuli but also a physical difference in facial muscles. Fake smiles are created through the use of a single muscle that connects to the corners of the mouth; meanwhile, genuine smiles also involve the orbicularis oculi, a muscle that surrounds the eyeball. Although mimicking the mere mouth movement may be easy, few can deliberately engage their orbicularis oculi to replicate a Duchenne smile.

LaFrance makes a comparison between a genuine smile (left) and a fake smile (right). Courtesy of Professor LaFrance.

LaFrance explains that these physical differences have been explored in a number of experiments. At Uppsala University in Sweden, scientists used this distinction to verify the common idea that “smiles are contagious.” The researchers exposed participants to Duchenne smiles and measured their reactions. They found that genuine smiles directly induced smiles from the participants, confirming the general hypothesis.

In a 30-year long study, psychologist Dacher Keltner of the University of California Berkeley, examined the smiles of students in yearbooks and measured their success and well-being as time progressed. Keltner and his colleagues compiled information about the subjects including how long and fulfilling their marriages were, how well they would score on standardized happiness tests, and how many others were inspired by them. They found that participants with wide Duchenne smiles consistently scored the highest in the above three categories.

Smiles and Gender Roles

The significance of smiles in our culture can be extended to the realm of gender roles. The gender equality movement has made great strides towards political, economic, and social equality, but the investigation of non-verbal cues reveals an unexpected disparity between the sexes.

When considering smiling, the most apparent difference between males and females is that of frequency. It comes down to the fact that, on average, women smile significantly more than men. Three main theories can explain this phenomenon. The first concludes that throughout the history of mankind, women were more often expected to provide relationship support, and therefore smile more. The second theory attributes the frequency to societal roles, and says that, “as caregivers, soothers, and calmers of troubled waters,” women are forced to smile more.

LaFrance agrees with a third theory, which hypothesizes that the higher frequency of smiling in women is a subtle sign that women are cast in a lower status group than males. LaFrance argues that because the sexes do differ, there is an assumption that they should differ in social power. Furthermore, in many societal contexts, this difference manifests itself through the lower status group smiling more than the higher status group.

A Matter of Age

The main discrepancy in smile frequency comes within the ages of 15 and 25. LaFrance explains that during this particular age, gender markers are most important for social and reproductive success. Essentially, our society abides by the implicit, traditional mandate: “we want men to be masculine and women to be feminine,” states LaFrance. Therefore, smiles seem to be one indicator of the more stationary nature of gender roles.

A 3-D ultrasound image of a baby smiling while still in the mother’s womb, reveals the biological root of smiling. Courtesy of

The Implicit Bias

To further illustrate her point concerning gender differences, LaFrance detailed one of her recent studies. In the experiment, female subjects, whose gender biases had been previously examined, were told that they were part of an investigation concerning the humor of college students. The subjects were lead individually into a room with a pair of headphones, which played jokes from a professional comedian. The subjects were asked to record their thoughts on the jokes in a comment section, and a hidden camera recorded their facial reactions as well.

When confronted with a sexist joke, the women wrote “offensive, sexist, tacky, not funny at all.” says LaFrance, “but we looked at their faces, and [they] were showing a lot of genuine smiling.” For the field of psychology, this correlation, or lack thereof, between how people outwardly confront stereotypes and what they internally believe is particularly revealing. Hence, there are discrepancies within societal gender roles “that may not have always been noted but that must be understood.”

Looking Forward

LaFrance is continuing research on non-verbal communication and smiling pertinent to present day issues. Specifically, she is studying the effect of smiling on those who are recognizably Muslim. In the media, Muslim men are characterized as scowling and angry, thus adding to the American stereotypes of Muslims. However, when a similar photo is shown to subjects, this time with the man smiling, the subjects are understandably more trusting of him. Yet the exact opposite is true for Muslim women. When Americans were shown pictures of Muslim women, they distrusted the women more when they appeared smiling. While conclusions are uncertain at this point, this study suggests that underlying societal perceptions of gender roles cross cultural boundaries.

LaFrance asserts that “smiles don’t stand alone. You put it on a male face, it’s different from a female face, different on a face of an African American, or Muslim, or a Jewish settler in the West Bank. You’re getting different information, and what we’re trying to sort out is what kind of information we get out of that.”

About the Author
Terin Patel-Wilson is a freshman of Pierson College and has written two articles for the Yale Scientific Magazine. Though he has not decided on a major, he fosters a strong interest in organic chemistry, which he hopes to pursue.

The author would like to thank Professor Marianne LaFrance for her fascinating research, animated interview, and time.

Further Reading
Cañamero, Lola and Aylett, Ruth. Animating Expressive Characters for Social Interaction. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co, 2008. (Available online through Yale Library website)