The Australian - The Deal - - Trends | People | Events -

New re­search by the US So­ci­ety for Neu­ro­science cred­its light­ning- quick so­cial re­flexes, in­grained in neu­ral cir­cuits, for de­ter­min­ing when we smile. Gen­er­ally, we re­flex­ively share or hide a smile based on rank, power and sta­tus, say re­searchers who an­a­lysed the in­vol­un­tary fa­cial re­sponses in­volved in re­turn­ing or sup­press­ing a smile. It’s the lat­est in­sight into what sci­en­tists study­ing cul­ture and the brain call the “boss ef­fect”, in which the so­cial pres­sure re­lated to sta­tus and power af­fects our neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy. “It shapes your neu­ral ar­chi­tec­ture,” says cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sook- Lei Liew.

The pol­i­tics of an of­fice can al­ter our per­cep­tions of faces and ex­pres­sions in sub­tle ways. Nor­mally, we recog­nise our own face first in a group of pho­to­graphs. Un­der some cir­cum­stances, though, it’s the pic­ture of our boss that we re­spond to first, in an in­vol­un­tary re­ac­tion that over­rules our usual so­cial re­flexes.

This “boss ef­fect” can vary by na­tional cul­ture. Chi­nese work­ers re­acted fastest to a pic­ture of their di­rect su­per­viser, but only if the boss had the power to give them a neg­a­tive job eval­u­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to a study last year by Liew and col­leagues at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Pek­ing Univer­sity. By con­trast, US test sub­jects re­acted most quickly to a su­per­viser whom they per­ceived as more so­cially in­flu­en­tial. Us­ing a tech­nique called fa­cial elec­tromyo­g­ra­phy, cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist Evan Carr tested the re­ac­tions among 55 male and fe­male students, who were di­vided into cat­e­gories of those who felt more pow­er­ful and those who felt less. They were shown videos of peo­ple they were told held a high-rank­ing po­si­tion, such as a physi­cian, or a low-rank­ing one, such as a fast-food worker.

Carr found that whether some­one un­con­sciously mim­ics the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of an­other – such as by re­turn­ing a smile – seemed to de­pend, in part, on how pow­er­ful the mimic feels, and the sta­tus of the per­son they are “mir­ror­ing”. The re­searchers found that when peo­ple felt they were pow­er­ful them­selves, they would rarely re­turn a high- rank­ing per­son’s smile, au­to­mat­i­cally sup­press­ing the ten­dency to mimic an en­gag­ing grin. Those who felt more pow­er­less au­to­mat­i­cally mim­icked ev­ery­one else’s smile, re­gard­less of rank.

The Wall Street Jour­nal

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