We’d all like to think we can see through a faker, somebody who’s pretending to smile but who inside is plotting your ruin, reeling in horror from your interior decor, or wishing they were somewhere else. Unfortunately, as a pretty much endless supply of dishonest politicians, successful confidence schemers, and cheating significant others proves, we’re not so great at it. This post will show you how to spot most fake smiles, largely using research from the near-legendary psychologist Paul Ekman and others who have worked with him or built on his findings.
By the way, I don’t want to suggest that fake smiles are entirely a bad thing. If someone wins a prize you were hoping to win and the best you can offer is a fake smile, that seems far kinder to me than offering the grimace or tears that might come more naturally. Fake smiles are sometimes appropriate social facilitators, and if the intention is right, they can sometimes be used to create real smiles. At other times, they’re danger signals, and at those times it helps to be able to see them for what they are.
Happiness moves muscles that are nearly impossible to fake
The reason we have a chance of telling the difference between real and fake smiles is that our unconscious response to happiness moves muscles that are next to impossible to move voluntarily. I’m sure you’ve had the occasion to have to fake-smile sometimes. How do you go about it? You raise the corners of your mouth, of course, using a muscle called the zygomatic major. If you’re really putting your all into it, you’ll even scrunch up your eyes, and that will up the fool factor a lot.
Real happiness, though, moves muscles you might find harder to manage, especially above the eyes. We’ll look at those more closely in the following section, where I describe several things to look for in a real smile.
1. Are the eyes involved?
If you don’t see the muscles around the eyes move at all, the smile is almost certainly fake, regardless of how wide it is. Real smiles crinkle up the skin to the sides of the eyes, slightly dip the outer ends of the eyebrows, and lower the fold of skin between the eyebrow and the eyelid. These last two cues are very telling, but take some work to get used to spotting.
2. Is it lopsided?
Movies and novels would have us believe that a lopsided grin is an impish, playful, honestly happy expression. In real life, genuine smiles are normally symmetrical, while fake smiles can sometimes happen more on one side of the face than the other.
3. Is there an echo?
This is my own observation rather than something taken from research, but my experience is that when a real smile goes away, there’s a sort of echo or slow fading of the expression. Even when the smile is done, the smiler may look just a little happy for a moment. Compare that to the way a fake smile sometimes simply vanishes as though it never happened.
There’s a quiz on the BBC Web site that does a great job of testing the ability to recognize a real smile from a fake one. Ready to try it out? Go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/surveys/smiles/ .
Use with caution
When applying your understanding of smiles to guess at what someone else is thinking, please remember that no one part of the body gives a complete account of what’s going on. Body language recognition can be very useful and often very accurate, but it is only a set of clues, not absolute indications.
You might also be interested in these other posts on this site:
- How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language
- Using Body Language to Change Our Moods
- Useful Book: The Definitive Book of Body Language
Photo by niznoz