The Hidden Language Of Political Smiles

Forget what politicians say. Their smiles may reveal what they are actually feeling.

National Journal

Not all smiles are equal. There are the smiles of genuine enjoyment: spontaneous outward expressions of inner happiness. And then there are the staged smiles: the ones that express politeness, contempt, or restraint. These forced smiles employ a different set of facial muscles than the happy ones. A person with a keen eye can point them out.

Patrick A. Stewart has that keen eye. Stewart, a professor at the University of Arkansas who studies the intersection of politics and human behavior, is an expert in the Facial Action Coding System, a systematic method for classifying smiles. Studying the subtle movements of the corners of a person's mouth, the position of their jaws, the movement of their eyes, he can determine whether a smile is real or a fake.

The question he and his co-authors sought to answer in a forthcoming paper in the journal Politics and the Life Science is whether voters could—on a gut level—pick up on the different types of smiles displayed by politicians, and in turn, if those smiles affect a voter's thoughts about that candidate. Stewart poured through hours of footage from the 2011 Conservative Political Action Convention and similar events looking for distinct examples of smile subtypes to show to 92 study participants at two mid-sized universities. You can see examples of each type below.

Contempt Smile

A contempt smile is not a smile that comes from a place of joy or friendship. According to Stewart, this smiles says: "We really don't like you. You're pretty inept at what you are doing."

Controlled Smile

A controlled smile is one that says, "I'm enjoying myself, but maybe I shouldn't enjoy myself too much."

Enjoyment Smile

This is the real deal. It's a smile that says, "I'm having a great time here."

Posed Smile

A posed smile is a put-on that says, "Yeah, I got to smile at this point because it is socially acceptable."

Stewart and his colleagues showed the above videos to participants in random order, without sound or any context. After each clip, participants were asked to rate the emotional intent behind the smile: how happy, reassured, angry, or threatening it was.

"The whole idea," Stewart says, was to find out "do people actually notice this? They do notice it. When they evaluate the emotions being felt by the candidates, there are significant differences there."

Posed smiles, "conveyed the least amount of happiness/reassurance," the paper's results find. While contempt smiles "received much lower happiness/reassurance ratings."

Smiles, Stewart says, help us understand charisma: Why does one candidate connect with voters but another does not? In a crowded field—like the current GOP primary race—it is often subliminal qualities that push a voter to support one candidate or the other. We evaluate politicians on the physical structure of their faces. We prefer happier politicians. "Just smiling in campaign photos can significantly affect election outcomes," a 2012 paper in the journal Political Psychology concluded in an analysis of 958 candidates in Japanese and Australian elections. Research in neuroscience has found that watchingsmiles appears to activate the brain's reward pathways.

For voters, smiles are also glimpses into a candidate's personality. While a speech may be scripted, their smiles are not. If a person is showing a subdued smile in the face of great crowd cheers, that may indicate some humility or bashfulness. An enjoyment smile at a time when an opponent is being attacked may signal vindictiveness. A contempt smile while while an opponent is being attacked may signal stalwartness.

It's not that one smile is better than another, Stewart says, it's that the smile should be consistent with the message. If a candidate is speaking about hope for the future, his smile should appear happy, not staged or contemptuous.

"I've seen some advertisements and it's like, seriously, you've got that smile?" Stewart says. "The person just isn't enjoying themselves and one of the kids, or the wife, is just pissed off beyond belief; they are doing a posed smile or a contempt smile. That's probably detracting from the message you want to put out there."