Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

What the Face of Love Looks Like

When it comes to love, a look can say it all.

Ever wonder what the face of love looks like? Just look in the mirror.

No, this isn't some Mr. Rogersish, Stuart Smalleyesque effort to get you to love yourself for who you really are. Though by all means, feel free to do so.

Rather, what I mean is that we make very different faces when we interact with those we love. Literally.

We humans have a well-documented tendency to go with the flow and conform to the behavior of others around us. In fact, my forthcoming book, Situations Matter, devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon, exploring a range of manifestations of conformity from the popularity of baby names to sports fans doing the wave to fashion (and the sad reality that decades from now we're going have to explain to our grandkids as they look at old photos why it is that, for a brief period of time, adults who could afford actual shoes instead voluntarily ventured out wearing plastic clogs with swiss-cheese holes).

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One example of our propensity to conform is that we often–without even trying to–mimic the nonverbal behavior of those we're with. Sit across from someone who's, say, crossing her arms, and odds are you'll eventually do the same. Researchers have labeled this tendency the "chameleon effect," and there are advantages to it: the more someone adopts our mannerisms during conversation, the more we end up liking him.

The same goes for making faces. Cross paths with someone smiling, and you're more likely to smile yourself. Indeed, in a series of studies published in this month's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Dutch researchers found that people shown photos of angry faces became more likely to frown themselves, as measured by electrodes that recorded the electrical activity associated with the movement of their facial muscles.

But here's the catch: as with so much of human nature, our tendency to mimic the facial expressions of others is context-dependent. Yet again, situations matter.

Specifically, this mimicry of frowning faces disappears when the face looking back at you belongs to your partner. The same participants in this Dutch study responded very differently to angry photos of their significant other: facial electrodes indicated that rather than frowning back and returning the angry face, participants now started to smile.

I suppose the cynic out there might suggest that these were relationship sadists, somehow amused by their partner's anger. Or that the smilers were acting out of self-preservation, hoping to deflect the impending storm of an angry significant other in a different, less complicated direction.

But that wasn't what was going on. Those participants most likely to respond with a smile were the individuals who had earlier earned high marks on a measure of unconditional relationship commitment–i.e., those who regularly make sacrifices for their partner's well-being. They responded with a smile in an automatic effort to soothe their loved one's distress.

That's the face of the love for you, or at least one of them. The restraint to avoid fighting fire with fire. The ability to absorb rather than return the hostile volley. The instinct to try take the edge off a partner's negative emotional state.

So it remains true that in most situations, it's tough to shake the bonds of reciprocity and the shackles of conformity. But, just like the Bible says, love will set you free.

Or maybe that was Whitesnake. I always get those two confused.

Well, either way.

 

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Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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