Online dating is all the rage these days, and statistics suggest that up to a third of couples now meet online—a percentage that’s steadily rising. As someone who has been through the process myself, there’s something that slowly became evident to me after a short amount of time. The photos that people post of themselves are more than just a mere snapshot of that person. They can often tell you almost everything you need to know. It’s all in the smile.
A smile is the most powerful facial expression we have at our disposal. But it is not simply just any smile. Scientists actually distinguish between two types of smile, known as the Duchenne (named after the famous 19th century French neurologist) and non-Duchenne smiles. Anatomically, the Duchenne smile involves the contraction of the zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi muscles on your face. The ends of your mouth are raised and your eyes scrunch up. This is a true spontaneous smile that is very difficult to fake, and reflects genuine emotions and happiness. On the other hand, a non-Duchenne smile involves only the zygomaticus major muscle, and is easy to make voluntarily whenever you like, not necessarily being a reflection of your real emotions. As humans, we typically have an intrinsic ability to detect a genuine versus non-genuine smile.
Fascinating studies show that a genuine Duchenne smile in photos can be a predictor of that person’s deep underlying psychological state and even future life events. This all hinges on a theory in psychology known as “thin slicing”, which uses the shortest of time periods to gain profound insights into someone’s character and emotions.
For instance, one study from Indiana looked at graduating yearbooks and found that people who smiled the most were the least likely to divorce decades later. An extension of this study found the same effect when they went back and looked at peoples’ photos at an average age of just 10 years old! In other words, the more people genuinely smiled in photos, the more likely they were to stay married.
Another study from Michigan analyzed photos of baseball players, and found that those with the most intense Duchenne smiles, lived almost 10 percent longer than those with no smile.
Other studies too, have confirmed similar beneficial results in “real smilers”.
What’s the reason for these positive outcomes? Photos probably reflect peoples’ deep underlying emotional tendencies, which then influence behavioral processes. A person who smiles more is likely to be more friendly, cooperative and outgoing, and the people they interact with may be more likely to mimic these same behaviors. It’s also likely to reflect their underlying attitude and sense of humor. In this way, having positive tendencies can result in more positive responses. Whatever the exact mechanism, it’s easy to see how this type of emotional flow is likely to result in better relationships.
This is of course all a very crude analysis which may sound a little far-fetched, and like anything, doesn’t necessary apply to everyone. Nevertheless, the results of studies have been clear and equivocal.
Smiling is a very positive trait, and especially if you are inclined optimistically and positively yourself, should seek that in your partner by looking carefully at how they come across in their profile picture. Do they look stern, stand-offish, distant or putting on a fake smile—or do they look happy, friendly, and genuinely smiling?
Below are some examples of a Duchenne smile. Note contraction of both the zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi muscles. Notice the cheeks are raised and eye muscles contracted, with corresponding facial lines present around the eyes.
By the way…Happy Valentines Day everyone! 🙂
Suneel Dhand is a physician, author, speaker and healthcare consultant. He has experience in a number of different healthcare environments, having worked up and down the East coast and also internationally. His specialty areas include hospital QI, optimizing healthcare IT, and improving the patient experience. He is the author of 3 books, including most recently “The Ultimate Patient Advocate in Your Pocket”, designed to help hospitalized patients. He is also the founder of HealthITImprove, an organization dedicated to improving and optimizing information technology at the frontlines of healthcare.