Smile, Darn Ya, Smile

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-05-30 16:42
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Conventional wisdom has it that when you smile, the world smiles with you, but when you frown, you frown alone. Researchers Jessica Tracy and Alec Beall from the University of British Columbia suggest that smiles may not be all they are cracked up to be. Tracy and Beall say that while smiling may help women attract men, smiling men are likely to be left out in the cold.

Heterosexual subjects in the Tracy/Beall study were asked to judge the relative sexual attractiveness of photographs of opposite sex individuals showing emotional expressions of happiness, pride, and shame.

Men were rated the most attractive to women when displaying pride and least attractive displaying happiness. Women were rated most attractive to men when they displayed happiness and least attractive when prideful.

The media is having a field day with the study suggesting that it may cause men to smile less on dates and that "women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men." Reasoning backward, the study's authors suggest that the results help to explain the enduring allure of "bad boys" and other iconic gender types.

The problem with that reasoning is that it can be used to explain any result. For example, had the study shown that men were most attracted to prideful women, one could justifiably reason that it is because men seek out challenges or that they are turned on most by secret, aloof, or mysterious females.

So, before men line up in front of mirrors to practice their prideful scowls, there are some other wrinkles to consider which undermine the researchers' conclusions.

Tracy and Beall equate pride with higher status males. That is a questionable assumption since we know from other research that qualities like self-esteem, which are related to pride, bear no relationship to one's competence or status. There is, as well, no research evidence to support the proposition that high status males are more likely to display pride than an expression of happiness when meeting women.

Even if one assumes that pride, not happiness, is closely associated with high status and that high status males are more likely to present themselves prideful when meeting women, there are some problems with the study.

The researchers relied upon subjects' self-reports of how attractive they found the photos. A more complete measure would be having subjects' physiological changes monitored while they view the photos since we know that people often say one thing but act differently.

Another problem with concluding that females are less attracted to posed smiling male faces is that the female subjects may well have recognized, at either a conscious or unconscious level, that the smiles were not genuine. They knew they were seeing a faux smile for the camera and it was that phoniness which turned them off.

The researchers acknowledge the chief limitation of their findings when they ask "Do these expressions have the same impact on sexual attractiveness in live social interactions?". That's what we really want to know. So, while this survey is interesting, it really doesn't tell us very much.

There's nothing wrong with researchers helping people get a leg up in the mating game and solid research might provide a way to do that. But it's a little premature to conclude that pouting like James Dean is a surefire way to get the girl.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.