Smile for the camera?

In this video, I sat down with Diane Cleverly, Certified Body Language Trainer and healthcare advocate.

Diane teaches patients how to communicate with their physicians and has spent the last two decades in medical communications with pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and patients, navigating the complex world of healthcare. 

Diane embarked on a fascinating study looking at selfies and smiles. A little out of her wheelhouse, but it sparked her interest nonetheless.

Watch the video to learn more. Diane’s guest post continues below the video. 

What made you undertake a study on smiling and selfies?

It’s one thing to be prompted to smile by a photographer holding a puppet. It’s quite another to smile for a selfie. When the Google Arts and Culture App (for Android here, iOS here) inspired a large number of people to post selfies to find which work of art they most resembled, this was a great opportunity to parse differences between the types of smiles that people make for the “selfie smartphone.”

Note from Science of People: We talk a lot about smiling in our Body Language Trainer Program

The smile is one of the most powerful expressions. As humans, we can spot a smile from 300 feet away, farther than any other microexpression.

Are there different kinds of smiles? Why is smiling important? Why does it matter?

The Duchenne smile is the smile that spreads up into the muscles around the eyes. This smile often is associated with positive emotions and can activate a positive emotional feedback loop in the person smiling. We can recognize this smile by noticing the little wrinkles or “crows feet” around the eyes and the cheek “apples.” It’s the kind of smile that makes us want to smile back.

Note from Science of People: When we approach someone, our brain has a basic concern centered around safety. We’re constantly evaluating for “friend or foe” upon the approach. A genuine smile is like a big flash of “Friend! Friend! Friend!” It’s our most prominent social signal. 

Another type of smile is called the “Pan Am” smile, (non-Duchenne smile), named for the flight attendants who flashed this smile to passengers boarding airlines. This smile occurs only in the lower half of the face. This smile is not as often associated with positive emotion.

Note from Science of People: In cases where we’re forced to smile for long periods of time, we often don’t feel as much genuine happiness. So the smile falls flat on the bottom half off the face. In the Pan Am smile (or in fake smiles), you’ll notice the eyes and upper cheeks aren’t engaged. See the difference in the video below of a real smile versus a fake smile: 

What was your hypothesis for this study?

Other photo research has concluded that: 

  • Women find men who don’t smile to be more attractive than smilers. 
  • Men find women who smile as more attractive than non-smilers. 

My hypothesis was that most of the male photos in the GAC app would feature non-smilers and that the female photos would show more smiling. 

Note from Science of People: We decided to do an experiment to figure out what makes a good profile picture. Using photos from the dating website, we coded hundreds of pictures looking for patterns between the highest-rated and lowest-rated photos. Regarding smiling, we found that for women, closed mouth smiles were the worst. The lowest-ranking women used the closed mouth smile. The highest-ranking women had either a full smile or a neutral face. For men, surprisingly, neutral faces tended to do best. High-ranking men had serious or still faces (often looking off into the sunset) and those seemed to do better than low-ranking men, who smiled wide.

Walk us through how you set up your experiment and the data you analyzed.

I surveyed 352 selfies taken for the GAC app and found that, while the same small number of both men and women displayed Duchenne or authentic smiles (roughly 1 in 5), significantly more women (p<0.001) favored using a Pan Am smile for the app over a neutral expression, compared to men (34% to 17%). That means that one-third of the women chose to use a smile not associated with positive emotion, but rather with politeness! (Bogodistov and Dost, 2018)

A large majority of people were using the GAC app at home in a solo setting, rather than a social setting.

Note from Science of People: From a cultural perspective, women want to make friends, be likable and please people. So, women are more likely to smile to try making friends more quickly. Culturally, men don’t have as encouraged to provide warm social cues. So, they’re often okay taking a picture and not smiling.

  • Why do you think so many women chose Pan Am smiles when using the GAC app, whereas men chose neutral expressions?
  • Do these data just reflect the way that women are socialized? What about the small number of men and women who are able to convey Duchenne smiles?
  • Why was there no gender difference in Duchenne smiles, and why were they so rare in our sample population?

I believe that the social norm of pressuring women to smile, and women feeling as though smiling improves social interactions, might be so ingrained that they tend to smile subconsciously, even when taking selfies in a home setting with no other people around. Men may not be as aware of their facial expressions or may not care for the look of their face smiling. So they take a more neutral expression selfie. Other reasons could include the fact that women take more selfies than men and are more “practiced” at smiling for selfies, albeit not an authentic, emotional smile, or that people taking selfies tend to copy magazine advertisements, which more typically show women smiling, and men non-smiling.(Doring, et al, 2015)

Without interviewing the study subjects, we never will know for sure, but one thing is clear. Mastering your best Duchenne smile can make your selfie a true work of art. Roughly 10 percent of both the male and female subjects had a great Duchenne smile, which really elicited an emotional response from me as the reviewer. At times, I couldn’t help but smile back. If this is the response you want, then you definitely should try the Duchenne smile.

Note from Science of People: Your Action Step is to determine your default. When someone asks to take a picture or says “Smile!” what do you do? Do you default to a smile or a neutral face? Sometimes, we don’t feel like smiling, but we do it anyway. Remember, you don’t always have to smile. But you certainly can! The idea here is to be purposeful and authentic with your expressions. Own it, and make sure you’re feeling a smile for the right situation. 

Tip: You can practice the Duchenne smile for yourself by trying to activate your cheek muscles when you smile. Think of something or someone that makes you really happy! Some comments I received on my study were that people weren’t smiling because they didn’t like to show their teeth. You still can have a Duchenne smile without opening your lips. Try it!


Bogodistov Y, Dost F. “Proximity Begins with a Smile, But Which One? Associating Non-duchenne Smiles with Higher Psychological Distance” Front Psychol. (2017)

Doring, N, Reif A, Poeschl S. “How gender-stereotypical are selfies? A content analysis and comparison with magazine adverts” Comp Human Behav. (2015);55:955-962.

This guest post is written by Diane Cleverly. Diane is a Certified Body Language Trainer and founder of Concierge Conversations

About Vanessa Van Edwards

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and behavioral investigator.

I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.

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