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3 Ways Your Smile Can Predict Your Future

... including whether you're likely to win a fight.

The human smile is a complicated form of communication. It can be real or fake, and indicate positive or negative emotions. Smiling has its roots in our evolutionary past. One prominent argument maintains that primates began smiling as a way to convey social status and acknowledge others' dominance, largely through the baring of teeth. Yet over the course of evolution, showing teeth may have shifted from being a way to scare off others to a way of communicating submissiveness to dominant individuals, thereby circumventing conflicts and clashes.

The human smile today has transformed into a highly complex facial expression and, as research demonstrates, it can even predict outcomes later in life. Here are just 3 examples:

  1. Can your smile predict how long you will live?

    Remarkably, research says it might. In one recent study, researchers rated vintage photographs of 230 major league baseball players who played during the 1952 season. Consistent with previous research and theory, the investigators reasoned that facial expressions are an emotional barometer and can range in appearance and intensity. In particular, the investigators were interested in whether genuine smilers, or “Duchenne smilers,” whose use of the muscles at both the corners of the mouth and around the eyes signify true smiles, live longer. The images of the players were assigned to one of three groups—non-smilers, Duchenne smilers, and non-Duchenne smilers. The researchers then looked at data recording how long the 184 deceased players in the group had lived and found that of the deceased players, Duchenne smilers tended to live the longest, followed by non-Duchenne smilers. What's more, a whopping 70 percent of smilers lived to the age of 80, while only half of the non-smilers reached that age.

  2. Can the intensity of a smile predict divorce?

    Astonishingly, such a link has been found. In a two-part study, researchers investigated whether the intensity of a person's smile predicted the probability of divorce, based on the widely-accepted theory that smiling can reflect the deep-seated emotional dispositions that affect our lives. In the first study, the team analyzed positive facial displays in college yearbook photographs. In the second, they assessed participants' photos from childhood through early adulthood. And in both studies, the degree to which participants smiled in their photos predicted whether they would divorce. Overall, the results revealed that people who frown in photos are five times more likely to get a divorce than those who smile. According to the authors, smiling may be a manifestation of having a positive outlook on life, which may have a positive influence on marriage satisfaction.

  3. Can smiling predict losing in a physical contest?

    Consider a two-part study of professional fighters that looked at the relationship between smiling and physical dominance. The researchers wanted to test whether smiling was a nonverbal indicator of decreased hostility and aggression, essentially serving as an involuntarily advertisement of low physical dominance. In the first study, investigators found that Mixed Martial Arts fighters who smiled more in a pre-match photograph performed more poorly during their fights, compared to those who smiled less intensely. In keeping with predictions, fighters who smiled more intensely prior to a fight were more likely to lose as the result of the sheer physical force used by their opponent, including getting knocked down, hit, and wrestled to the floor. By contrast, fighters with neutral facial expressions before a match were more likely to dominate and win. In the second study, the team had untrained observers rate photographs of fighters' facial expressions, but manipulated the image so that the same fighter was presented as both smiling and wearing a neutral expression. They found that fighters were judged to be less hostile and aggressive, and thus less physically dominant, when they were smiling. The researchers contend that if smiling is indeed associated with reduced physical dominance, then it may give opponents a confidence boost—and the competitive edge in a match.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adolescents and adults. She has worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma and abuse, and life transitions. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.


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