Researchers: smiling people attract more happiness

Researchers: smiling people attract more happiness

Renowned social psychologist Alexander Danvers conducted a large-scale study and concluded that smiling makes people happier.

In the original study, participants were asked to rate how much fun they thought a cartoon series was while holding a pen in their mouths. The trick was to hold the pen in different ways: in one case they held it with their lips, not giving movement to their smile muscles, and in the other they held it with their teeth, which, in contrast, activated those muscles. When the smile muscles were active, the participants rated the cartoons as funnier! You may not realize it, but smiling changes the way you feel! It looked as if activating the muscles associated with a particular emotion subtly and unconsciously influenced people’s emotional responses.

But then it turned out that this discovery was wrong. In 2016, a large-scale study that collected data from 17 different laboratories found that the results of the original experiment were not reproducible. Activating the smile muscles didn’t change how much fun the cartoons seemed to the participants.

This result seemed conclusive because the new attempt included many more people from a more representative sample (because they weren’t just students from the same university) and with a more limited methodology and analysis design (because there were expert facial feedback). But was this really the case?

Just two years later new evidence was added to the discussion. Tom Noah, Yaakov Shul, and Ruth Mayo pointed out what they felt was a significant difference between the original and the replication study: the use of a video camera.

Based on feedback from one of the experts, the replication team decided to videotape each session to keep track of everything (including the correct position of the pen in the mouth!). But videotaping can make a person more self-conscious. Various psychology articles say that people rely less on “intuition” to make decisions when they know they are being watched. This may have tainted the results of the reproduced study.

Therefore, Noah and his colleagues decided to conduct a new study in which they randomly assigned participants to one of two different versions of the experiment: the original version without the camera and the replication version with the camera. When the camera was on, the result was the same as in the replication – there was no smile effect. And when the camera was not turned on, the effect appeared just like in the original study. That is, it was a matter of the video camera.

It is easy to interpret this as a struggle between science reformers and their opponents among social psychologists. The traditional conclusion was rejected, and then there was a backlash that mirrored the rejection. (The editorial comments by Noah and his colleagues imply that the replicators’ claims of a “decline in the accumulation of scientific knowledge” do not apply.) But in fact, this is a great example of how things should be done in the scientific field. Scientists have to question each other’s conclusions, and it is very important to find out if the results are correct. This involves both questioning the results of replication studies and making sense of why the results may be different when replicated.

One possible result of reviewing earlier studies should always be “we were wrong, this effect doesn’t tell us anything reliably. This can happen because of statistical noise-the data looked like there was a difference between the groups, when in fact there wasn’t. This is not the experimenter’s fault, but it is something that can be verified by performing replications. Finding that a pre-existing belief is wrong should always be an acceptable outcome of a study, and it does contribute to the accumulation of scientific knowledge.

But, as Noah and his colleagues discovered, sometimes the psychological effects can be more subtle. Their work suggests that the smile effect depends on people’s embarrassment at the sight of a new moderator. Applying detailed knowledge from another field of psychology, they have provided a more nuanced understanding of how this effect works. Of course, as they write in their conclusion, statistical analysis of their successful replication without a camera may be wrong with a 10% probability.

This is where the research of Noah and his colleagues is important. People often used the original discovery as proof that smiling will make you happier. That facial expressions can change the way you feel, even if you don’t feel it. But new results disprove this! The effect is gone if you are embarrassed. So there’s no point in making people smile to change the way they feel-they’ll realize they’re trying to change the mood, and that will nullify the effect. So, what would I say in lectures now? I would say that facial muscle activation can affect mood – but we can’t control it.


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