Smiles Shown to Be Contagious, Necessary for Survival

by Amanda Gordon


You’re having a terrible day. One of those days where anything that can go wrong, does go wrong. You spilled coffee on your shirt, you missed your bus and now your whole day is off. You’re thinking how much worse can this day get, when suddenly someone smiles at you.

You don’t know this person, just a stranger who is passing by, but they smile at you and you smile back, and suddenly things don’t seem as bad. You feel a slight tick on your optimism scale, and get a new sense to take on the day.

Don’t worry, you’re not crazy–it’s psychology. Charles Darwin, the man who introduced the Theory of Evolution, also gave notion to the idea that people respond to the emotions of others, but he does not limit this reaction to humans alone. Animals are also capable of responding to and expressing emotions in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Think about the last time you saw a cat with their ears pressed back, or a dog showing off their canines. These are physical signals warning other animals to stay away, or else.

Essentially, Darwin concludes that emotions are valuable not just for the purpose of evolution, but for social structures as well. He did a series of experiments from infants to patients in psych wards to test his theories on a range of emotions, showing that the emotions of others have the potential of affecting our own.

In other words, smiling is contagious. But why?

Adrienne Wood, a social psychologist of University of Wisconsin, called this habit facial mimicry, an instinctive response to reading the emotions we are fed from other people.

“We propose that some smiles and laughter serve the dominance function of elevating the social status of the expresser and conveying superiority.” —Niendenthal Emotions Lab

As social beings, it’s deemed a critical skill to recognize and replicate the emotions evoked from our peers. It allows us to better understand the situation and guides our next set of actions. Do we comfort a grieving friend or give them space?

“In order to recognize the facial expressions and emotional expressions we see, we recreate what it feels like to do that facial expression and we refer to that stimulation to understand what the person in front of us is feeling and what their intentions are to [us]. Then [we] know how to respond appropriately. This is all happening without [us] even thinking about it,” said Wood.

Other studies on smiling have been produced which show potential benefits to the act of a simple smile. According to the Niedenthal Emotions Lab, located at the University of Wisconsin, we begin to reap the benefits of smiles while we are infants.

When a smile is given, “babies are also able to reinforce and maintain caregivers’ attention, which is crucial for their survival,” stated a study result, but smiles can also hold some serious power, not just in producing a brief happy moment, but hijacking a social situation.

“We propose that some smiles and laughter serve the dominance function of elevating the social status of the expresser and conveying superiority,” according to the same study from the Niedenthal Emotions Lab. “Expressers can embed their aggressive intentions in one of these ‘harmless’ signals, thereby negotiating dominance without disrupting the interaction with outright aggression.”

Consider using a smile rather than scolding at a sibling or a friend the next time they say something dumb or act out in an unfavorable way. It may smooth over the situation much better than starting an argument.

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