Anatomy of a False Smile

Most people smile every day. It is an automatic reflex and a deliberate one, so in many cases it does not indicate joy. Scientists say smiles can be an evolutionary behavior, designed to let others know that we’re not being threatening. They point to chimps who might smile because they are happy or smile to show they have no wish to challenge another animal. Sometimes people mistake an animal’s open mouth or display of teeth as “smiling” or “laughing”, to their own peril.

It might look like this chimp is laughing, but mistaking his aggression for playfulness would be no joke

This chimp isn’t laughing; his expression is aggressive 

There are many reasons people display an insincere smile, including nervousness, manipulation, confusion, embarrassment, and many others. It’s worth knowing if someone’s smile is sincere, but often it’s difficult to tell a real expression from a feigned one. There are a few tell-tale signs you can easily distinguish though, so let’s examine a few smiles that are definitely not authentic.

Exhibit A is Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. After being indicted, Governor Perry posed for his mug shot. Hs expression is technically a smile, but it hardly exudes happiness. The two giveaways in this picture are his mouth and his forehead. A real smile is somewhat loose, but the muscles around Governor Perry’s mouth are tightened. When you’re happy, your eyebrows naturally lift a little. Perry’s forehead is even, or possibly even lowered, which is a sign of anger.

Governor Rick Perry

Governor Rick Perry

The smiling-for-your-mugshot trend amongst politicians was pioneered by Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader, who smiled for his mugshot. DeLay was an astute politician who realized his opponents would love to distribute a picture of him hauled into police headquarters, scowling into the camera for his mugshot. So instead he smiled, and as a result, his mugshot vaguely resembles a campaign flyer. He manages to look happier than Perry, but his smile is false too. The giveaway in this case is around the eyes. When you smile, your face alters around the eyes, making them look a little smaller and wrinkled at the corners. Over time, smiling (or laughing) causes small wrinkles called laugh lines. The expression in DeLay’s eyes also appears to be anxious, but that’s subjective.

Tom DeLay

Let’s look at one more politician, former Senator John Edwards. Edwards also grinned for his mugshot, though the effect was somewhat painful. In the picture on the left, he looks more like he’s barring his teeth than actually smiling, which brings to mind some chimp behavior scientists cite. Most smiles turn up at the ends, just as most frowns turn down. Like Perry, Edwards’ brows didn’t elevate, and like DeLay, the corners of his eyes didn’t wrinkle.

John Edwards

And finally, one last mugshot. Justin Beiber, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was snapped for posterity and he smiled for the occasion. His image bears the hallmarks of a false smile: his eyebrows are even, his eyes are wide with no wrinkling in the corners, and his mouth is tight, without turning up at the ends.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.59.44 AMThough it’s a fairly safe guess that a guy who smiles for a mugshot is not really the picture of joy, the same criteria can apply in any situation – including conference rooms, barbecue, and bingo night.

One final note about false smiles: Positive psychology experts tell us that if you smile when you are feeling blue, it’s much easier to actually become happier. In other words, if practiced long enough, a false smile can become real!




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