Smiling: When, How and Why We Smile

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Smiling: When, How and Why We Smile

That may smile, and smile, and be a villain. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Minds differ more than faces. (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary)

What can you read into a smile? Smiling may be natural or faked. The broad, genuine, expressive, spontaneous smile can be defined physiologically in terms of what muscles do to different parts of the face: lips, cheeks or eyes. There is also the wry, miserable smile, often lopsided, that indicates recognition of the vicissitudes of fate. The polite smile — often more like a grimace — is as much a sign of embarrassment as happiness.

Fake smiles are used for various purposes, often to pretend to show enjoyment, or sociability or agreement. These are easily noticeable because they involve the mouth and not the eyes. Technically we can define the physiological difference between a genuine and fake smile: two muscles are involved (zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi); real smiles involve both muscles and fake smiles the former but not the latter.

There are lots of reasons why people smile. We know that when people are lying they tend to smile less than when telling the truth because they do the opposite of what people expect of others who are telling a lie. Police studies have shown many times that people accused of serious (smuggling) and less serious crimes (speeding) tend to smile more and more genuinely when innocent than those later proved to be guilty. You can detect false counterfeit smiles by looking for four things:

1 Duration: How long it lasts. False smiles last longer.

2 Assembly: False smiles are put together (eyes, mouth) and taken apart more quickly than real smiles.

3 Location: False smiles are ’voluntary’ and involve mainly the lower part of the face, whereas ’involuntary’ smiles involve as much the upper part of the face around the eyes and eyebrows.

4 Symmetry: If the smile appears more on one side of the face (often the right side), it is more likely to be false.

The ’science of smiling’ was founded by Charles Darwin. Darwin also observed that smiling and laughter often occurred together and therefore had similar origins. Happiness, he thought, was similar to amusement. Smiling is the outward manifestation of happiness and serves to begin to connect us to others. We are, as we say now, ’prewired’ to connect with others via this system. Interestingly, some researchers have shown that people who cannot smile, because of facial paralysis, have more difficulty in social relationships.

However, there may be culture differences in the rules of smiling: when etiquette dictates it is appropriate to smile or not. For instance, it has been demonstrated that in America, people smile more in the south than the north (cut by the Mason—Dixon Line).

On average, women smile more than men. At two months old we can observe that baby girls smile more than baby boys. We know that powerful men smile less than less powerful men. Also that smiling is linked to testosterone: the more men have, the smaller and fewer smiles they make.

There is a lot of evidence of body language mirroring. ’Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.’ This sets up a virtuous cycle for the smiler and a vicious cycle for the non-smiler. Smiling helps bond people together.

There is also physiological evidence that smiling has specific biological consequence. This is even truer of laughter and is evidence of a feedback loop. Smiling has hormonal and physiological consequences which make us feel better and want to smile more. Smiling self-medicates and heals.

All body language researchers have attempted to come up with a full category scheme for the different smiles that one notices. Zoologists noticed that chimpanzees have two smiles: a submission face (lips retracted, teeth exposed) and a play face (lower jaw dropped and corners of the mouth pulled back). The submission face is designed to appease.

Smiling in humans can indicate dominance. If you watch two people of different social rank, the dominant people smile more in ’friendly situations’ but less in ’unfriendly situations’.

Another distinction has been between open and closed mouth smiles. One writer has identified 15 different smiles which she calls the: mirthless, the stretched social rictus, asymmetric, upturned, mouth-shrug, perfect, suppressed, tonsil-flasher, secret, uber-flirt, aggressive, lower-jaw jut, clencher, smug and know-all!

The world’s expert, however, is Paul Ekman who has studied all facial muscles and psychological motives to understand the nature of smiles. He has a useful list:

1 The felt smile which is long and intense and shows all sign of positive feeling associated with amusement, contentment, pleasure from stimulation.

2 The fear smile and contempt smiles are misnomers because neither have to do with positive emotions, though both can have a ’smiley mouth’ and dimples.

3 The dampened smile is a real smile where people attempt to suppress or conceal the extent of their positive emotions.

4 The miserable smile is a ’grin and bear it’ smile indicating stoicism about negative emotions.

5 The flirtatious smile is partly embarrassed because the person gazes/faces away from the person of interest/contact.

6 The Chaplin smile is a contorted supercilious smile that in effect smiles at smiling.

Ekman also notes deliberate, but not fake smiles that send particular messages like:

1 The Qualifier smile which takes the edge off a harsh message which can ’trap’ the recipient into returning the smile.

2 The Compliance smile is an acknowledgement that a bitter pill will be swallowed without protest.

3 The Co-ordinated smile is a polite co-operative smile showing agreement, understanding and acknowledgement.

4 The Listener Response smile simply indicates that everything heard is understood. It is an encouragement to continue.

Politicians, movie-stars and media people practise smiling. So do those in the hospitality business. There are things they learn not to do: open your mouth, unless laughing, producing a sudden flash smile, and having a choreographed smile that bears no relation to what you are saying. Saying cheese produces fake smiles. People well known for smiling very little (Putin, Bronson, Thatcher) have a reputation for being tough and non-submissive, which is what they want to portray. Smiling affects a person’s reputation and those in the ’reputation business’ know that.


Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Doubleday.

Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New York: Times Books.

Vrij, A. (2000). Detecting lies and deceit. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.