Smiles Signal

Many who complain about my signaling stories seem to think human behavior falls into neat and distinct categories, including: things we like, and things we do to show off. So if they introspect and see that they genuinely like to do something, they conclude that it cannot be signaling. But consider the simple smile – while we do genuinely like to smile, our tendency to smile depends on socially context in ways that also help smiles to serve as signals:

The zygomatic major [muscle], which resides in the cheek, tugs the lips upward, and the orbicularis oculi, which encircles the eye socket, squeezes the outside corners into the shape of a crow’s foot. The entire event is short — typically lasting from two-thirds of a second to four seconds. … Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only [this] peculiar tango … produces a genuine expression of positive emotion. … Most [psychologists] consider it the sole indicator of true enjoyment. …

College yearbook … Women who displayed [genuine] expressions of positive emotion in their 21-year-old photo had greater levels of general well-being and marital satisfaction at age 52. … Smiles of professional baseball players captured in a 1952 yearbook, … could explain 35 percent of the variability in [their] survival. … Compared to smiles taped during honest interviews, the nurses gave fewer genuine … smiles when lying. … Women smile more than men. …

A massive meta-analysis … from 162 studies and more than 100,000 participants … isolated three variables that influence sex-smiling disparities. … [1:] When people know they’re being watched … sex differences in smiling are greater. … [2:] When men and women share a task or role that follows rigid social rules — like those requiring flight attendants to smile and funeral directors to remain somber — the grin gap diminishes. … [3:] Embarrassing or socially tense situations cause females to smile more than males, but happy or sad situations have no such effect. …

[Researchers] observed the smiles of test participants told to share some of the fee they received from the study with a friend. When people were engaged in this sharing activity they exhibited more [genuine] smiles than during a neutral scenario. … Some were primed for exclusion through an essay task that required them to write about a time they were rejected. … Excluded participants showed an enhanced ability to distinguish [genuine] smiles from false ones … [and] a greater preference to work with individuals displaying genuine … smiles. (more)

Also consider one more data point: our happiest moments by far are during sexual orgasm, but we rarely (NSFW source) smile at such moments.

Signals can be socially wasteful, as some of each person’s gain from their signaling effort can come at the expense of others made to look worse by comparison. Yes our enjoying things makes their efforts less costly, but even so there are real costs that can be socially wasteful.

Even with smiling. For example, we tend to be happier when we smile, and we smile more when we are around others. But I doubt we’d be better off if forced to be around others more often. Our smiles would come at a needlessly higher cost.

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  • Ted

    Hi Robin,

    Just so you know, your link ‘by far’ to the paper about happiness should point somewhere else.

    1) The paper says not to distribute it on another website

    2) I couldn’t find any reference to orgasm being a happy experience. Only two cases of ‘org’ show up, and they both are in the word organization.

    Hope this helps.

    • See “making love” in figure 1.

      • Jan

        Ted has a point:
        Making love ≠ sexual orgasm.
        And people occasionally smile during making love.

  • There’s also the smile which is a false signal, both to sender and recipient. A person near and dear to me went much of his life thinking he was smiling a rather shy smile, turned out the signal received by others was one of supercilious superiority.

  • Of all the possibile criticisms of the signalling story – this is the least intuitive to me.

    Where does the intuition that we don’t like to do things that involve signalling come from?

  • You talk about self-deception a decent bit, so I wondered what you thought of Ramachandran’s criticism of Triver’s theory.

  • Nathan

    Some smiles are faked, and could be used for signaling, but there are also smiles that cannot be faked, as genuine smiles engage muscles that cannot be controlled voluntarily.

    Maybe a lot of signaling works this way; it’s rooted in a “natural” (unintentional) behavior that people learn to mimic as they age.

    • John

      Signaling doesn’t mean “faked,” and “genuine” doesn’t mean “not a signal.”

      Let me give an example. Every generation of high school kids likes different music (that everyone else hates). Signaling seems like a perfect explanation here–kids use music to show all sorts of divisions between them and adults, and between cliques within a school.

      But just because music is about signaling doesn’t mean it doesn’t provide genuine enjoyment. That’s even (perhaps especially) true for genres that have a big signaling component.

  • Roland

    Why do people always smile when taking a picture nowadays? Often these are fake smiles of course, done for the picture. I guess even a non “genuine” smile is signaling something: dominance. Smiling has also the effect of showing someone else your teeth which originally probably was an aggressive gesture as it still is when you feel that the other is laughing at you.

  • Kevin

    NSFW and ‘porn’ should both be indicated. Obviously porn is a subset of nsfw, but i think a little extra information on the nature of the nsfw stuff would be helpful to readers.

  • suzanne stratmann

    is this a post about female orgasm, or orgasm for both sexes? where are the photos of men, please?

    one possible reason women do not smile during orgasm: it’s been posited that we go blank during those moments, and are not “feeling”/emoting anything at all.

    the happiness (for women and men, i would suppose) is the emotion that follows the physical sensation. people smile in reaction to some stimulus–in this case, an excellent one…

  • pseudonymoniae

    I’m not entirely sure it is appropriate to measure “happiness” in the form of post hoc self-report. Is this really an accurate measure of how happy someone is? Also, don’t you imagine that most people feel compelled to indicate that they are happy while having sex? This whole “by far” business seems fishy to me.

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