Smiling Has A Strange Effect On Racist and Sexist First Impressions

Smiling people may be less likely to be judged by their gender or race, study shows.

Could something as simple as a smile put an end to racist and sexist first impressions?

Probably not. But a new study published in the August issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion suggests that when people smile, strangers may be less likely to judge them based on their race and gender. In other words, by conveying friendliness and openness, people may stop some of those harsh snap judgments in their tracks.

But this doesn’t mean you should smile your way through unfair social interactions. (And no one should tell women to smile more.)

“Some have concluded the implication of this finding is that members of stereotyped minorities could just smile to reduce the likelihood that others will apply stereotypes to them, but that is too simplistic,” said study co-author Nicole Senft of Georgetown University.

“That conclusion places the responsibility on minority group members to combat stereotypes through their own behavior,” Senft said. “Instead, I think it’s important that we all turn the lens inward and become more aware of the many factors that play into the impressions we form of others.”

Senft and her colleagues asked 93 students to look at a series of photographs of faces and rate the person on Big Five personality traits, which include agreeableness, extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness and neuroticism. The photographs included Caucasian and Japanese men and women. Half the students looked at photographs showing faces with a neutral expression, and the other half looked at the same faces smiling.

When judging the inexpressive faces, the students showed hints of applying some preconceived notions about gender and ethnicity in their impressions. They rated Caucasian men lower on agreeableness than Caucasian women, and rated Japanese women as less extroverted than their Caucasian counterparts.

However, when the same faces were smiling, these biases disappeared from the ratings.

This might not be that surprising after all. Smiling, just like race, gender and various facial expressions, sends social cues, which people use to form a quick idea about the person they’ve just met.

“We smile to signal our intent to play, to affiliate, to approve, to appease, or to submit,” said psychologist Alan Fridlund of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who wasn’t involved with the study. “All of these motives have in common our signaling others that we mean them no threat.”

But Fridlund isn’t convinced that smiling can do away with the cultural prejudices formed over a lifetime, and said it’s more likely that the findings simply demonstrate a phenomenon called overshadowing: The smile momentarily distracts people of other cues they can get from the other person. “Give people something big to look at, and they are diverted from everything else,” Fridlund said. 

Senft also cautions that the study was small and only included American students of European and Asian descent. More work is needed to replicate these findings and examine the effects in other racial groups such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans. 

Nevertheless, the finding that something as simple as a smiling face can change how we form first impressions suggests how malleable ― and in a way, superficial ― such impressions can be. 

“For me, the takeaway is that we all need to be wary of the impressions we form of people when we don’t have much information to go on,” Senft said. “That sense we sometimes get that a person just ‘isn’t very nice’ might have more to do with our own biases than with anything about them.”