Smiles Mimic, Show Status
October 15, 2012

Study Identifies Smiles As Form Of Mimicry And Status

Enid Burns for — Your Universe Online

Smile, and the whole world smiles back at you. But if research is any indication, a new study released by students in the department of psychology at the University of California in San Diego shows the action of returning a smile is determined by station and sense of security.

A report presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans titled by Evan Carr, a graduate student at UC San Diego and one of the study's authors, shows people tend to return the smile of someone they feel is in a station below them. Alternately, when someone feels powerless, they tend to return everyone's smiles.

The report looks at people's tendency to mimic the behavior of others. An article in the Guardian U.K. describes the research. Students had the goal of identifying how mimicry influenced a person's power and status of those around them. Researchers showed 55 volunteers videos of high-status people including doctors and business leaders. Alternately, volunteers also watched videos of low-status people such as fast food restaurant workers and garbage collectors. While watching video, researchers looked at two facial muscles: the zygomaticus major, the muscle that influences smiling; and the corrugators supercilii, the muscle that influences frowns.

A second influence that volunteers underwent before watching the videos was that each participant was split into one of two groups and asked to write an essay about a particularly good or bad event in their life. The group who wrote essays about bad events in their lives were more likely to feel powerless and more compelled to return everyone's smiles.

In the presentation, Carr said that power refers to someone's internal feeling of being able to take control of others. Status was a more externally defined quality. "It's more to do with perceived reverence or some type of social hierarchy," the Guardian quoted Carr as saying.

Smiling behavior is linked to mimicry. "Mimicry has been shown to help build relationships, and both power and status seem to affect how we unconsciously employ this strategy," Carr said.

While most participants smiled at people they perceived in lower stations, such as service workers at stores and other locations, participants were less likely to smile at people with higher power. "If you feel powerful, you suppress smiling to targets that are of a higher status," said Carr. "If you see Joe the senior vice president and he's smiling at you, but you feel powerful, you feel less of a need to smile back at him. For the low-power condition, you return more smiles to everyone, regardless of their status. That's interesting in the sense that it seems to be along the lines of a deference response - if you feel low-power, you're more likely to be submissive to another person you're interacting with. You would be more likely to smile at everybody."

The tendency to frown was more pronounced. "The frowning muscle showed more straightforward results: regardless of how powerful the volunteer felt, they mimicked the frowns of higher-status people more often and with more intensity than the frowns of lower-status people," the Guardian article said.