Chances Are, Your Smile Is From Frustration
May 25, 2012

Chances Are, Your Smile Is From Frustration

Lee Rannals for

Although some people may appear to be grinning after you say a clever comment about how they gained holiday weight, a new study confirms it's merely a smile out of frustration, rather than humor.

Experiments conducted by MIT researchers found that 90 percent of participants in their study actually expressed frustration through smiling.

The findings could help pave the way for computers to help assess the emotional state of their users, and train those working with people who have autism to interpret their expressions more accurately.

During the study, the researchers asked participants to act out expressions of delight or frustration.  The people were then asked to fill out an online form designed to cause frustration, or were invited to watch a video designed to elicit a happy response.

According to the findings, 90 percent of those asked to express frustration did not smile, at least until they were actually frustrated.

Participants in the study were asked to fill out a detailed online form, only to find that their time had been wasted when their information was deleted after pressing the "submit" button.  Ninety-percent of the time, those who pressed submit decided to smile out their frustration, as opposed to smashing the keyboard against a wall clock.

A video analysis in the study may help people in determining whether someone is smiling out of frustration, or happiness.

According to the study, people who are happy tend to have smiles that gradually build up, while those who are frustrated smile quickly, and its wiped from their faces nearly as fast as it arose.

Ehsan Hoque, a graduate student in the Affective Computing Group of MIT´s Media Lab who is lead author of a paper just published in the IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing, said the work could be directly used in interpreting people with autism.

“People with autism are taught that a smile means someone is happy,” he said, but research shows that it´s not that simple.

The research could also be useful for training people who have difficulty with understanding expressions, or those in the marketing field.

“Just because a customer is smiling, that doesn´t necessarily mean they´re satisfied,” he said in the press release. And knowing the difference could be important when trying to determine the best way to respond to a customer.  He says: “The underlying meaning behind the smile is crucial.”