Why Smile?: The Science Behind Facial Expressions


An expert in nonverbal communication tackles the science of smiles and their extraordinary social impact.
When someone smiles, the effects are often positive: a glum mood lifts; an apology is accepted; a deal is struck; a flirtation begins. But not all smiles are equally benign: a rival grins to get under your skin; a bully's smirk unsettles his mark. Who flashes more fake smiles, popular kids or unpopular kids? Is it good or bad when a bereaved person smiles? Much more than ...

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Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions

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An expert in nonverbal communication tackles the science of smiles and their extraordinary social impact.
When someone smiles, the effects are often positive: a glum mood lifts; an apology is accepted; a deal is struck; a flirtation begins. But not all smiles are equally benign: a rival grins to get under your skin; a bully's smirk unsettles his mark. Who flashes more fake smiles, popular kids or unpopular kids? Is it good or bad when a bereaved person smiles? Much more than cheerful expressions, smiles are social acts with powerful consequences. Drawing on her research conducted at Yale University and Boston College as well as the latest studies in psychology, medicine, anthropology, biology, and computer science, Marianne LaFrance explores the compelling science behind the smile, revealing that this familiar expression is not as simple as it first may seem. Her groundbreaking work shows how the smile says much more than we realize—or care to admit. To read this book is to learn just how much the smile influences our lives and our relationships.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Smiles begin at the lips, but they almost stop there. Their impact can be felt as flirtation or smirky putdown; a shared, cheerful affirmation or a mark of gutsy transcendence. To explore the deeper meanings of this instantaneous act, Marianne LaFrance drew on her own research and recent findings in a variety of scientific disciplines. Her Lip Service constantly surprises with its evidence that emotions that we convey in nanoseconds have such powerful social consequences. Putting a new face on that familiar grin.

Publishers Weekly
Smiles are "social acts with consequences," writes Yale social psychologist LaFrance. They also are "indispensable" to both physical and psychological well-being. LaFrance draws on a wide range of psychological and biological factors, as well as culture and literature, in order to delineate the many different kinds of smiles and how to recognize and react to them: the seductive smile, the sometimes manipulative smiles of politicians, and the ingratiating ones of salespeople. LaFrance is particularly interesting in discussing smiling and power: high-power people smile when they want to, low-power people when they have to. LaFrance also examines gender differences: women tend to smile and reciprocate smiles of others more than men—but only when they're being observed by others. And she notes the cultural differences in how often people smile and what constitutes a smile in public. According to a study she cites, American college students look for smiles around the mouth, while their Japanese counterparts look around the eyes. While LaFrance occasionally digresses, her extensive research, clear and sometimes humorous writing, and interdisciplinary approach make this a very fine book for anyone who smiles (or doesn't). (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews

A winning smile is widely recognized as social currency even by our primate cousins, but—as LaFrance (Psychology/Yale Univ.) shows—its meaning is not always so obvious.

The author deconstructs the hidden content of smiles and their role in our lives, beginning with the startling information that babies have been observed to practice smiling while still in the womb. This is believed to be an unconscious survival mechanism that prepares them to elicit the care they need from adults in order to survive, rather than a spontaneous expression of pleasure. The author identifies this act as the baby's social manipulation. By five or six weeks, the infant has learned to lock eyes with caretakers and smile responsively. "[E]volution has made that behavior adaptive," she writes, providing "babies with the ability and inclination to flex their smile muscles but maturity and social context affect whether, when and how they will materialize." Smiles are recognizably spontaneous or voluntary, engaging different neural pathways and involving different facial muscles; and they can represent a panoply mixed emotions, which are recognizable according to the facial muscles they engage, their size and duration. Humans are wired to respond empathetically to the smiles of others, and experimental evidence suggests that people who smile more tend to live longer because the act evokes a positive emotional state. Psychologists describe this as the "facial feedback hypothesis." LaFrance presents an abundance of contemporary research to demonstrate how our smiles are conditioned socially. Women tend to smile more than men, people in power positions smile less than their subordinates and service-with-a-smile is expected. Americans smile at the children of strangers, while Europeans don't, and there are subtle differences between the smile of an Englishman and an American, or a French woman and a French-speaking Canadian—as discernible as their different accents.

By unveiling the complexity of something as simple as a smile, the author provides surprising insights into culture and psychology.

Scientific American
LaFrance shows that there is much more to a pair of upturned lips than meets the eye.
Wall Street Journal
A masterly example of social sciences at its best—a look at how researchers do their work, what questions they ask, how answers lead to new questions, and why all of this matters in our everyday lives. . . . LaFrance’s true subject is not simply the smile but its uniquely human double purpose: to convey our feelings—and disguise them.
The Oprah Magazine O
Yale psychology professor Marianne LaFrance draws on the latest research—in fields from biology to anthropology to computer science—in an effort to shed some light on the happy face.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393060041
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/8/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Marianne LaFrance received her PhD from Boston University. She is now a professor at Yale University, and her research has been featured in media outlets such as NPR, the BBC, and the New York Times. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

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Table of Contents

introduction ix


smile science 3

out of the mouths of babes 26

the indispensable smile 52

missing smiles, frozen smiles 76


two-faced smiles 103

smile politics 124

service with a smile 147


real men don't smile 167

smiles with a foreign accent 195

smile for the camera 218

exit smiling 239

acknowledgments 247

notes 249

references 289

index 323

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