REASONS TO SMILE
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