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3 Types of Smiles and What They Say About You

New studies show how your smile affects your relationship, if not your life.

Source: goodluz/Shutterstock

You’re scanning through a website showing photos of prize winners, and of course all of them are smiling. However, as you look through the array of apparently happy people, some strike you as particularly posed, while others look completely natural. In fact, those stiff grimaces on some of the winners annoy you for some reason you find hard to describe. They seem to be faking their pleased expressions, and you imagine that as soon as their image was preserved for posterity, their faces returned to their normal scowls. You can’t figure out how those who faked it got their awards, so they must have other redeeming qualities, or so you hope.

Even if you're not gazing at photos of supposedly happy people, you're constantly performing analyses of the emotions and sincerity of the people whose faces you see in the news on a daily basis. Politicians present their smiling faces to viewers in an attempt to look like they care about you, the voters. They may give a press conference on an uncomfortable topic, all the while flashing the occasional toothy grin to make it appear as though they have the public's best interest at heart. It's possible they mean it, but there's something in that smile that doesn't ring true to you.

The very best actors are trained in the ability to fake happiness without seeming insincere. You might even argue that it’s harder for Oscar-quality performers to fake happiness than sadness. Tears go a long way to communicating sorrow, but there are no such accompaniments to help a smile convey a genuine emotion. For ordinary people, the job of putting on a smile for the camera would seem to separate the easygoing people who like to laugh naturally from those who are only smiling because someone shouted “cheese!”

If smiling provides insights into people’s levels of happiness, it might also seem possible that smiling produces certain health benefits. At least this is what occurred to University of Leipzig (Germany) psychologist Michael Dufner and colleagues (2018). Using a rare opportunity to study smiling as a predictor of longevity, the researchers decided to replicate and expand the findings of an earlier investigation (Abel & Kruger, 2010) on a cohort of professional baseball players. In the 2010 study, raters evaluated each man's photo according to the extent to which he smiled, and then judged how happy he seemed to be. Showing a correlation between longevity and smile quality, the authors claimed that they’d demonstrated the life-prolonging effects of smiles that communicated feelings of joy.

The reanalysis in Dufner et al.’s (2018) investigation on a somewhat larger sample allowed them to factor in possible influences on the smile-longevity relationship, including, importantly, the year of their birth. In the expanded sample used for the 2018 study, the biggest smilers also had the longest lives, but the effect disappeared when the authors took year of birth into account. As the authors concluded: “When we considered that it was uncommon for players from earlier cohorts to smile in photographs and that these players also had a reduced life expectancy, smiling ceased to predict mortality."

This replication study becomes an object lesson in the need for scientists to replicate findings before drawing the conclusions that reach the popular press. However, the null findings don’t mean that smiles aren’t important. Across both studies, the baseball players with the biggest smiles received the most positive emotion ratings: A smile, then, communicates a person's level of happiness as judged by the outside world.

You may not feel all that happy, but if you seem to be happy, other people will feel that you are. The question is: Why should you bother, and if you do, how do you go about communicating that message? According to Concordia University’s Dana Howard and her McGill collaborators (2018), smiling is definitely worth the effort. Smiles serve as social rewards that draw us toward other people. As they note, “Attending to social information … is often considered to be one of the key building blocks of the human sociocognitive system." When you smile, you let others know that you're likable. That should make people more likely to try to help you when you're in need of support.

In fact, the Canadian findings supported this theory. When the research assistant in the study asked participants to earn points for her on a learning task, they worked harder, and the learning effects persisted for a longer time than when she didn’t tap into their prosocial motives. Although the Howard et al. didn’t test the effect of smiling specifically, their title “Smile: Social Reward Drives Attention” suggests that by smiling, you become a socially rewarding person, whom people will work harder to help.

A third study on “functional” smiles showed that we can use our smiles for, as the authors point out, “love, sympathy, or war.” Cardiff University’s Magdalena Rychlowska and colleagues (2017) point out that “similar to a little black dress or a classic suit, smiles are a perfect fit for many social occasions." You can smile when you reunite with a best friend, or when you’re miserable, uncomfortable, or embarrassed. As seen through the eyes of a beholder, though, which smiles will be perceived as those positive social cues that will make others like you?

The three functions of smiles identified by the Welsh author and her team include providing positive feedback (as in the Hayward et al. study), showing affiliation, and expressing dominance. That last category of smiles can be useful if you need to assert yourself, but toxic when you use it to express superiority or contempt.

A complex modeling program helped Rychlowska and her fellow researchers develop a classification of smiles and their effects on observers. Through this process, they identified the following three combinations of facial movements that produced reliable differences in the emotional reactions of observers. (For a full demonstration, check out the complete Facial Affect Coding System page.)

  • Reward smile. When you’re communicating positive feedback through your smile, your lips get pulled directly upwards, you form little dimples at the sides of your mouth, and your eyebrows lift.
  • Affiliative smile. A smile that communicates friendship and liking involves pressing your lips together while also making those little dimples at the side of your mouth.
  • Dominance smile. Your upper lip is raised, your cheeks get pushed upwards, you wrinkle your nose, the indentation between your nose and mouth deepens like a sneer, and you raise your upper lids.

These classifications involve smiling with the mouth closed, rather than the full effect of showing the teeth. Even so, this taxonomy allows us to put into operational form that gut feeling you have when you look at the smile of people who’ve all been told to smile because they feel they have to, but don't manage to do a convincing job of it.

When you’re judging people in reality, rather than based on a photograph, a whole host of factors come into play. However, these studies suggest that to make sure your messages are congruent when you want someone to like you, it may be worth practicing your smile in the mirror or using selfies to see if you’re communicating everything you’d like to with your smile — even if it is dominance.

We can conclude that smiling may not predict the length of your life, at least when other factors are taken into account. However, to the extent that smiling brings you the rewards you desire in the form of having people like you and want to work for you, these studies show how to use your face to get that fulfillment you seek out of your relationships.


Abel, E. L., & Kruger, M. L. (2010). Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science, 21, 542–544. doi:10.1177/0956797610363775

Dufner, M., Brümmer, M., Chung, J. M., Drewke, P. M., Blaison, C., & Schmukle, S. C. (2018). Does smile intensity in photographs really predict longevity? A replication and extension of Abel and Kruger (2010). Psychological Science, 29(1), 147-153. doi:10.1177/0956797617734315

Hayward, D. A., Pereira, E. J., Otto, A. R., & Ristic, J. (2018). Smile! Social reward drives attention. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(2), 206-214. doi:10.1037/xhp0000459

Rychlowska, M., Jack, R. E., Garrod, O. B., Schyns, P. G., Martin, J. D., & Niedenthal, P. M. (2017). Functional smiles: Tools for love, sympathy, and war. Psychological Science, 28(9), 1259-1270. doi:10.1177/0956797617706082

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