On January 17th, 2018 we learned about

Science scrutinizes what factors make for a superior smile

My third-grader has mastered her publicity smile. While she isn’t posting selfies anywhere yet, she’s apparently put some work into making sure she has a camera-ready grin. I realize that, as her parent, I probably carry some biases about her appearance, but fortunately scientists around the world have been working to figure out what a truly optimal smile looks like. Crafting a smile isn’t risk-free though, as research has also found a few downsides in even the most beaming grin.

Perfect mouth position

As many of us have found out the hard way, not all smiles are created equal. How much a person opens their mouth or exposes their teeth can make greatly change how that smile is received by onlookers. To really parse which combination of mouth-shapes matter, researchers from the University of Minnesota surveyed people with images of an artificial head so that the other features could remain consistent while the smile was tweaked and adjusted in small ways. What they found was that a wide smile is judged as attractive if the teeth don’t show, a more open smile looks good if the mouth isn’t stretched wide, and a “medium” smile is pretty safe with teeth, no teeth, or something in between. To be more specific, the best-rated grins had a mouth angled between 13 and 17 degrees at the corners, with a width between 55 and 62 percent the distance between the eyes.

Before you worry about pulling out a ruler the next time you see a camera, it should be noted that these measurements don’t tell the full story. Cultural differences, asymmetrical features and the expression in your eyes can all influence how a smile will be received. The context of your smile counts too, since what’s a great smile on vacation might not be so winning at work.

Friendly but flakey?

A second study looked at how prospective clients view smiles of an agent they’d like to hire for different tasks. Overall, broader smiles were judged as being warmer, which may be great for someone working as a customer service agent. People with jobs that involved potential risk, like surgeons or investment advisers, were penalized if they had a large smile. They were still seen as warm, but also less competent than competition who looked more reserved.

The appearance of age

That broad, warm smile may also misrepresent your age. A third study found that participants all felt positively about images of smiling people, but they surprisingly also expected them to be older than they were. Despite what participants expected of how a facial expression might affect appearances, looking surprised was apparently the best way to look younger, probably because a wide-eyed gasp helps hide wrinkles, while a solid smile adds some friendly crinkles around the eyes and mouth.

Smiling after stealing

This may seem like a lot of pressure for something as simple as a photo, but the highest stakes for your smile may be tied to social competition. Researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies had test participants play a simple game, where they could either compete or cooperate with a partner to win money. For each round of the game, players chose to either split the money or steal it. If both agreed to split the money, they did exactly that. If one chose steal, they got all the money, and if both chose steal, both players received nothing.

If one player successfully stole the money, the facial expressions of both players were found to greatly influence the next round of play. A smiling victor would almost certainly drive the loser to choose “steal” on next, apparently as a way get retribution for the previous loss. However, if the loser smiled, it would act as an instant peace treaty, and the both players would be more likely to “split” the next round of the game.

Nodding seems nice

With this many nuances and consequences being attached to a simple smile, it’s fair to be hoping for a tip on just feeling less self-conscious about your facial expressions. Fortunately, researchers in Japan may have a handy shortcut to boosting how likeable and approachable you look. Just nodding your head up and down, as when you’re agreeing to something, was found to improve a virtual human’s likability by 30 percent. Better yet, when the figure shook it’s head “no,” its likeability wasn’t penalized in viewers’ eyes, meaning you don’t even have to worry about saying “yes” to every question you encounter. These results were looking at a female face with Japanese viewers only, so they might not be shared by people around the world. But a friendly nod coupled with a moderate smile seems like practical enough formula to aim for the next time you need to make a good impression.

Source: A winning smile avoids showing too many teeth, researchers say by Nicola Davis, The Guardian

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