the sisyphean reality of smiling
As casualties of Western media and polite positivity, social smiling has become an expected component of our day-to-day interactions. We smile for yes; we smile for no. We smile for hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. We rinse. We repeat.
These expectations do not leave us once we are behind closed doors. They extend beyond in-person niceties and nestle into our online personas. Static images of our faces regularly guide first impressions from peers and strangers alike. Whether it’s the business-casual beam for LinkedIn, the group-photo-grin for Facebook, or the carefree crinkle for Bumble – your smile is being judged, online and offline.
authenticity vs. perception
Because smiling is such a critical component of our social interactions, not just any lip corner levitator will make the cut. How others perceive our authenticity is essential. Our ability to assess emotional sincerity is not simply important for social survival but for survival in general. While in most cases, miscalculating the genuineness of a pleasantry is inconsequential, in some cases it can put us in life-threatening situations.
Many factors play a role in how we appraise the authenticity behind a smile, but how reliable are those factors?
putting it to the test
A few months ago, I posted two photos of myself smiling – one deliberately posed/non-response-based** and one spontaneous/response-based**. I asked audience members on all social media platforms which they believed to be the authentic smile and which they believed to be the posed smile.
I received over 170 responses; 85% of them were wrong.
Photo prompt from post shown below. See original post here.
Answer revealed at end of post.
NOTE: While 90 responses came from platforms where other voter answers were visible, 80+ responses came from platforms where voters could not see prior responses. Regardless of platform and voter visibility, the 85% trend remained stable.
TERMS & DEFINITIONS
Because the word “authentic” can be interpreted in various ways, it is important to align reader definition with writer intent. I am thus defining my terms as such:
authentic / unposed / felt: Facial expression was not consciously forced. Expression was a spontaneous reaction to an internal or external stimulus. Resulting expression was evaluated – by expresser (person experiencing reaction / expression) – to be reflective of expresser’s internal affective experience.
making sense of the confusion
The purpose of this test was to demonstrate the fallibility of our assumptions on facial expressions of emotion – and it did just that. Had I included video clips rather than photos, I am certain the audience would have performed much better; however, it is important to note that still images currently serve as the backbone for an alarming portion of emotion research and technology. Emotions are full of intricacies and nuances that, even with video footage and motion, we struggle to truly understand.
emotions & facial expressions
take big claims with a grain of salt
Because of the popularization of the Duchenne smile, certain concepts tend to get parroted around in pop culture and the emotion/nonverbal behavior world:
- The truth is in the eyes!
- Real smiles show in the eyes!
In a large sample of spontaneous (i.e., non- posed) smiles, we found that knowing whether a smile included the Duchenne marker added very little new information about both self-reported positive emotion and observer-rated positive emotion when smile intensity was already known. – Girard et al. 2020
- the shape and size of orbicularis oculi
- the shape, thickness, length, and orientation of zygomaticus major
- the spatial relationship between orbicularis oculi, zygomaticus major, and other surrounding muscles
- facial fat content and distribution
- dynamic wrinkle presence
- the presence of additional muscles interfering with the orbital region
In some people, orbicularis oculi and zygomaticus major muscles overlap; in others, they do not. There are also lesser-known muscles that inherently affect smile-based eye-mouth interactions such as the:
- medial malaris muscle
- orbitozygomatic muscle
These muscles are often omitted from anatomy textbooks due to their inconsistent presence in Europeans; they also remain unaddressed in emotion research centered on facial expressions. Such omissions have left us with large gaps in knowledge and a white European-leaning bias in a significant portion of Ekman-based emotion research. Variation in appearance affects detectability and facial coder reliability, rendering the methods of countless studies on spontaneous and deliberate smiles flawed and subject to false positives.
implications in academia, tech, & entertainment
These complexities are critical considerations for academic research, technology, and entertainment. In academia, we are attempting to gain deeper insights into our behavior. In tech, we are attempting to train machines to recognize and classify our emotions. In entertainment, we are attempting to recreate our movements and features down to the follicle. But can we really make headway when decision-makers resist heterogenous perspectives and cling to a frayed baseline of understanding?
If felt smiles of joy, the most widely recognized and arguably simplest emotion to break down anatomically, are so difficult for us to grasp – imagine the abounding chaos for more complex and less-easily recognized emotions.
recommended readings and perspectives
- Reconsidering the Duchenne Smile: Examining the Relationships between the Duchenne Marker, Smile Intensity, and Positive Emotion
- Why Faces Don’t Always Tell the Truth About Feelings
- Hard Feelings: Science’s Struggle to Define Emotions
- Artificial Intelligence Is Misreading Human Emotion
- How Language Shapes Thought
- Racial Influence on Automated Perceptions of Emotions
- Bias in Emotion Tracking
ANSWER: THE IMAGE ON THE LEFT IS THE SPONTANEOUS, FELT, UNPOSED SMILE.