Understanding Facial Expressions On World Smile Day
October 4, 2013

Understanding Facial Expressions On World Smile Day

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In 1963, Massachusetts artist Harvey Ball created the iconic yellow smiley face, an international sign of goodwill and peace. Though the image is instantly recognizable, some Spanish researchers are questioning the power of the smile and suggest this expression could confuse our perceptions of others’ emotions.

Human beings frequently communicate without words through body language or facial expressions, but these can be altered or distorted either intentionally or not. It’s apt that on World Smile Day David Beltrán Guerrero, researcher at the University of La Laguna, has released his research on facial expressions, recognition, and the fake smile.

"There is a wide range of more ambiguous expressions, from which it is difficult to deduce the underlying emotional state. A typical example is the expression of happiness," said Beltrán Guerrero in a statement. His research is part of a larger study into the deceptive aspects of the human smile.

"The smile plays a key role in recognizing others´ happiness. But, as we know, we are not really happy every time we smile,” he explained.

Guerrero and his team created several faces with different expressions, ranging from smiling mouths and smiling eyes to nondescript and emotionless mouths and eyes. These images were then shown to study volunteers who were asked to identify the emotions. Participants were easily able to distinguish when a person in these images were smiling.

According to Guerrero, the smile is a strong and easily recognizable expression. So much so, that the volunteers didn’t recognize the subtle difference between a smiling mouth and non-smiling eyes. When asked to determine if the faces in the images were happy, sad, or otherwise, the power of the smile was lessened. After viewing these pictures and asked to list the expressions, 40 percent of volunteers identified ambiguous expressions as genuinely happy.

"A smile can cause us to interpret a non-happy expression as happy, except when we are involved in the emotional assessment of said expression," said Guerrero.

He and his authors now say the reason for understanding what’s happening emotionally behind the smile is easy because it’s immediately noticeable. As the smile is universally accepted as the expression of happiness, we’re accustomed to noticing a grin and automatically assuming the person is happy. Expressions which aren’t immediately noticeable, such as the ambiguous differences between the mouth and eyes, take some study on the viewer’s part and are therefore not instantly linked to an expression.

Other recent studies have shown the smile is processed by the brain more quickly, thereby potentially explaining its power.

Guerrero’s research is released today, the first Friday of October, otherwise known as World Smile Day. Ever cautious of a diluting of his message, Harvey Ball started World Smile Day as a way to encourage people to simply smile and practice random acts of kindness. Today is the 14th annual World Smile Day, a holiday which is celebrated in Ball’s hometown of Worcester, Mass and all over the world.