“The Hidden Cost of Smiling”?

In a recent blog post on Psychology Today, Dr. Noam Spencer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein College wrote about “The Hidden Cost of Smiling.” He talks about Americans and how they are “over-socialized to smile, and argues that Americans are taught to smile at all situations, to the point where it has become an empty expression”.

Dr. Spencer relates the tendency to deliver an empty smile so easily, and in so many situations, to that of a psychopath, and that we as a society encourage and tolerate the “dissociation of facial expressions from their original purpose of communicating an underlying truth”.

He further argues that there are multiple consequences of ‘the faked smile’. One example that he gives regards American politics, and the public’s expectation of its leaders to project signs of optimism and certainty. He believes that he fakeness of American politicians “may be one reason for the decline in the quality of political leadership,” with the American people no longer having to face the reality of the state of their nation.

Dr. Matsumoto prefers to refer to these smiles as ‘social smiles,’ which he believes are just as important as smiles that portray genuine enjoyment, or enjoyment smiles. Test your knowledge of social/enjoyment smiles by taking our social/enjoyment smile game.

It may be a little harsh to compare Americans to psychopaths. Dr. Spencer states that psychopaths smile in order to further their agenda, rather than convey a true emotion. In addition, he argues that this description of a psychopath is similar to Americans’ tendency to force a smile even in the most difficult situations.

However, aren’t ‘social smiles’ necessary in many situations? (Spencer alludes to this point as well, but states that excessive smiling is unnecessary) A job interview, for example, is stressful and nerve-wracking, yet a motivated interviewee would not even think of answering each question without a confident smile. ‘Social smiles’ have can have quite an impact in building rapport. To liken the American people to psychopaths is questionable.

Do you feel that it is too harsh of a word, or is it an honest way of describing the way society is going based on Spencer’s article?

The full blog article can be found here.

3 responses to ““The Hidden Cost of Smiling”?”

  1. John says:

    There’s all sorts of quackery. Asserting that a common behavior is borderline pathological is … silly. And, if he’s pointing to American culture for this, he’s very shortsighted. He should look at much older Asian cultures – within which the “social smile” has been virtually compulsory for many generations – i.e. Japanese and Thai cultures.

    Obviously, any behavior that’s consistent enough to be described on cultural levels is an ADAPTATION, and adaptations occur on the basis of need / usefulness rather than pathology.

    Love Matsumoto’s work – and his perspective.

  2. Russ Conte says:

    I am an employer, and interview people for a living. Claiming that people have “social smiles” in interviews is hogwash. A top notch interviewer creates an environment in which the applicant can relax, be who they are, and let their genuine self be seen. A fake smile in this setting is about as obvious as someone walking in wearing a Bozo nose.

    Claiming that Americans are psychopaths (at any level) because of our propensity to smile is unsupported by empirical evidence. I have no idea where Dr Spencer lives, but here in the midwest people are normal, don’t overly smile, and can have a huge range of expressions in many different settings. While Americans may smile (both fake and real) more than other cultures, any connection to psychopathology is groundless, results in extremely poor research, and betrays an embarrassingly low level of knowledge of psychopathology. A review of the professional literature is recommended before such comments are submitted for publication.

    Russ Conte

  3. Håvard says:

    I have heard the opinion that Americans (in general) are fake. Presumably this habit has something to do with that.

    And the notion that John up there has that just because something is common means that it’s necessarily healthy… is not something that instantly rings true to me. Take female genital mutilation, it’s common in certain cultures… wife-burning… These are perhaps not the best examples, as they are not daily behaviour, but still…

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