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Study reveals how smiling doesn’t always reflect happy feelings

A recent study at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) has found that smiling does not always represent happiness. In fact, body language expert Dr. Harry Witchel is reporting that smiling is more often associated with social engagement.

People usually smile when interacting with others, and this expression is most commonly perceived as the result of feeling happy. However, the BSMS study has demonstrated that this is not always the case.

According to Dr. Witchel, one-to-one Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI) is a good representation of how humans behave when they are socially engaged.

The investigation was focused on 44 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35, who interacted with a computer alone in a room while their faces were recorded. The individuals participated in a Geography quiz which was designed with difficult questions so that they would often get the answers wrong.

After the quiz, the participants rated their subjective experience from a range of 12 emotions including bored, interested, and frustrated. The video recordings of facial expressions were computer analyzed frame by frame to investigate when the individuals were smiling.

The study revealed that the emotion that was most associated with smiling was engagement rather than happiness or frustration.

“According to some researchers, a genuine smile reflects the inner state of cheerfulness or amusement,” said Dr. Witchel. “However, Behavioural Ecology Theory suggests that all smiles are tools used in social interactions; that theory claims that cheerfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for smiling.”

“Our study showed that in these Human-Computer Interaction experiments, smiling is not driven by happiness; it is associated with subjective engagement, which acts like a social fuel for smiling, even when socializing with a computer on your own.”

The frame-by-frame smile analysis captured an expression for the question and answer portion of each of the questions. The researchers also monitored the expressions in between and found that participants did not tend to smile while they were trying to figure out the answers.

The individuals did, however, smile right after the computer game informed them if their answer was correct or incorrect. Surprisingly, the participants smiled more often when they got the answer wrong.

“During these computerized quizzes, smiling was radically enhanced just after answering questions incorrectly,” said Dr. Witchel. “This behavior could be explained by self-ratings of engagement, rather than by ratings of happiness or frustration.”

The study is published in The Journal of the ACM.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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