The Hidden Language Of Political Smiles

Forget what politicians say. Their smiles may reveal what they are actually feeling.

Obama Smile
National Journal
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Brian Resnick
July 30, 2015, 7:03 a.m.

Not all smiles are equal. There are the smiles of genu­ine en­joy­ment: spon­tan­eous out­ward ex­pres­sions of in­ner hap­pi­ness. And then there are the staged smiles: the ones that ex­press po­lite­ness, con­tempt, or re­straint. These forced smiles em­ploy a dif­fer­ent set of fa­cial muscles than the happy ones. A per­son with a keen eye can point them out.

Patrick A. Stew­art has that keen eye. Stew­art, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Arkan­sas who stud­ies the in­ter­sec­tion of polit­ics and hu­man be­ha­vi­or, is an ex­pert in the Fa­cial Ac­tion Cod­ing Sys­tem, a sys­tem­at­ic meth­od for clas­si­fy­ing smiles. Study­ing the subtle move­ments of the corners of a per­son’s mouth, the po­s­i­tion of their jaws, the move­ment of their eyes, he can de­term­ine wheth­er a smile is real or a fake.

The ques­tion he and his co-au­thors sought to an­swer in a forth­com­ing pa­per in the journ­al Polit­ics and the Life Sci­ence is wheth­er voters could — on a gut level — pick up on the dif­fer­ent types of smiles dis­played by politi­cians, and in turn, if those smiles af­fect a voter’s thoughts about that can­did­ate. Stew­art poured through hours of foot­age from the 2011 Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­ven­tion and sim­il­ar events look­ing for dis­tinct ex­amples of smile sub­types to show to 92 study par­ti­cipants at two mid-sized uni­versit­ies. You can see ex­amples of each type be­low.

Con­tempt Smile

A con­tempt smile is not a smile that comes from a place of joy or friend­ship. Ac­cord­ing to Stew­art, this smiles says: “We really don’t like you. You’re pretty in­ept at what you are do­ing.”

Con­trolled Smile

A con­trolled smile is one that says, “I’m en­joy­ing my­self, but maybe I shouldn’t en­joy my­self too much.”

En­joy­ment Smile

This is the real deal. It’s a smile that says, “I’m hav­ing a great time here.”

Posed Smile

A posed smile is a put-on that says, “Yeah, I got to smile at this point be­cause it is so­cially ac­cept­able.”

Con­trolled Smile

Stew­art and his col­leagues showed the above videos to par­ti­cipants in ran­dom or­der, without sound or any con­text. After each clip, par­ti­cipants were asked to rate the emo­tion­al in­tent be­hind the smile: how happy, re­as­sured, angry, or threat­en­ing it was.

“The whole idea,” Stew­art says, was to find out “do people ac­tu­ally no­tice this? They do no­tice it. When they eval­u­ate the emo­tions be­ing felt by the can­did­ates, there are sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ences there.”

Posed smiles, “con­veyed the least amount of hap­pi­ness/re­as­sur­ance,” the pa­per’s res­ults find. While con­tempt smiles “re­ceived much lower hap­pi­ness/re­as­sur­ance rat­ings.”

Smiles, Stew­art says, help us un­der­stand cha­risma: Why does one can­did­ate con­nect with voters but an­oth­er does not? In a crowded field — like the cur­rent GOP primary race — it is of­ten sub­lim­in­al qual­it­ies that push a voter to sup­port one can­did­ate or the oth­er. We eval­u­ate politi­cians on the phys­ic­al struc­ture of their faces. We prefer hap­pi­er politi­cians. “Just smil­ing in cam­paign pho­tos can sig­ni­fic­antly af­fect elec­tion out­comes,” a 2012 pa­per in the journ­al Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy con­cluded in an ana­lys­is of 958 can­did­ates in Ja­pan­ese and Aus­trali­an elec­tions. Re­search in neur­os­cience has found that watch­ing smiles ap­pears to ac­tiv­ate the brain’s re­ward path­ways.

For voters, smiles are also glimpses in­to a can­did­ate’s per­son­al­ity. While a speech may be scrip­ted, their smiles are not. If a per­son is show­ing a sub­dued smile in the face of great crowd cheers, that may in­dic­ate some hu­mil­ity or bash­ful­ness. An en­joy­ment smile at a time when an op­pon­ent is be­ing at­tacked may sig­nal vin­dict­ive­ness. A con­tempt smile while while an op­pon­ent is be­ing at­tacked may sig­nal stal­wart­ness.

It’s not that one smile is bet­ter than an­oth­er, Stew­art says, it’s that the smile should be con­sist­ent with the mes­sage. If a can­did­ate is speak­ing about hope for the fu­ture, his smile should ap­pear happy, not staged or con­temp­tu­ous.

“I’ve seen some ad­vert­ise­ments and it’s like, ser­i­ously, you’ve got that smile?” Stew­art says. “The per­son just isn’t en­joy­ing them­selves and one of the kids, or the wife, is just pissed off bey­ond be­lief; they are do­ing a posed smile or a con­tempt smile. That’s prob­ably de­tract­ing from the mes­sage you want to put out there.”


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