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The million dollar smile

We previously published an article titled ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’.  Amazingly, researchers in the UK have now worked out the monetary value of a smile.

Boffins at Bangor University, in Wales, have developed software that measures people’s responses when someone smiles. They claim that each smile is worth one third of a penny.

Research team leader, Danielle Shore, says that smiles act as “social currency, a valuable reward that people will pay to receive”. Their research suggests smiles have the power to make shoppers spend more than they wanted and create lucrative working relationships.

A word of warning, however. The research showed that positive responses to smiles only worked when they were genuine.

Students were asked to play a game with computerised opponents. The avatars either smiled genuinely or politely. The genuine smile produced ‘laugh lines’, little wrinkles around the eyes.

The students learned to associate the probability of winning money with each of the computer figures, with some programmed to have a better chance of winning than others. The avatars indicated wins with either genuine or merely polite smiles.

Shore explains that later in the game, participants were asked to choose which opponents they wanted to play in each round. She says: “We were able to determine the value of a smile, based on their choices.”

“The surprising finding was that participants preferred genuinely smiling opponents to politely smiling ones, even when the politely smiling ones offered them a greater chance of winning. We expected the students to prefer genuinely smiling opponents only when the odds of winning were equal. The fact they chose opponents who were less likely to pay out was a surprise.”

The results of the experiment allowed them to calculate the financial value of a genuine smile. Shore says: “It is funny to think about smiles in monetary terms, but the actual economic value depends on the person with whom you are interacting and the context of the interaction.”

“In our study, students gave up the equivalent of a third of a penny to see a smile. A genuine smile seems to add value to a person or conversation and has the power to influence how we view people and the decisions we make during conversations.”

A smile might help closing deals in a business context, or enable a waiter to get more in tips. Shore says: “This sort of thing could help boost the economy. When meeting someone for the first time, your impression of them may depend on how they smile.”

“Our lab found that when people don’t return smiles, this can lead to breakdowns in the conversation. Smiles encourage collaboration and productivity in work. if more genuine smiles are seen in a meeting, that meeting is likely to achieve its aims more quickly and with fewer difficulties.”

At first glance, it does seem like a spurious piece of research and Shore admits there are limitations to their results, relating to the social context within which smiles occur. She says: “We are currently working on examining how the context of the smile shapes behaviour.”

Their latest software has computerised faces smiling genuinely when candidates win and lose games. So far, the data “suggests participants really dislike the faces that appear to take pleasure at their losses. We know the current financial mess was precipitated by the banks and seeing genuinely smiling bankers with their bonuses, would not make people feel positively.”

The Bangor boffins are also investigating how our brains work when conversing with others. Shore says: “People are social experts. No two social interactions are the same and when you start a conversation with someone, it is difficult to tell where it is going to lead. I am interested in how people are able to adapt to changing social situations and how the brain manages the neural computations involved.”

“If people see someone is friendly, they enjoy the interaction more and build stronger relationships. If you smile more it may help you to build stronger social networks that can provide support throughout life.”

“Start every day with a smile and get it over with.” WC Fields.

Nigel Phillips

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