Identifying a genuine smile

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 by Harry.

A smile is the universal signal of enjoyment, excitement, happiness, and joy….But, not all smiles mean a person is happy.

There are some different scenarios when one may display a smile without feeling any happiness at all. For example, this may be out of politeness, or more ironically, used to mask an unpleasant emotion. How then,  can we trust a smile? And is there a way to distinguish a sincere smile from a one that has been posed?

I’ll give you a hint….It’s all in the eyes.

Using an unusual (and questionable) technique over 150 years ago, researcher Duchenne de Boulogne used some electrical probes to stimulate the facial muscles of one of his patients. Duchenne discovered that when he engaged muscles around the mouth of his patient, the patient would produce the smile lips, but did not appear to look happy.  Intrigued, Duchenne told his patient a joke to trigger a genuine joy response. Duchenne noticed that when his patient experienced true happiness, it wasn’t only the muscles of his mouth that were utilised, but also those of the eyes.

As you will see from the photos, it’s almost impossible to tell which photo is displaying genuine happiness while the eyes are covered. It’s only by seeing the muscles around the eyes (the Orbicularis Oculi) contract and create the crows feet that we can distinguish the two smiles.

Such “genuine” smiles are now known as Duchenne smiles in his honour.

Harry Lansley
Article by Harry Lansley

Specialist in Micro/Subtle Expressions and Behaviour Analysis. Harry is certified to the highest level in the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) used for the objective measurement of facial muscle movement.

6 responses to “Identifying a genuine smile”

  1. Lynne says:

    What does it tell when a true laughter response with squinted eyes, still does not produce the crow’s feet lines?

    • Harry Lansley says:

      Hi Lynne,

      This could mean a number of things and is a very good example of why taking into account a person baseline (normal behavior) is so important.
      Some people, particularly younger children, have very taut skin that can affect the prominence of crows feet. It could also be idiosyncratic behavior unique to that particular person…The key is to observe how a person displays genuine enjoyment (this may mean creating an environment where genuine enjoyment is likely – cupcakes maybe?) and then comparing the behavioral displays – if the eyes are engaged in one scenario, and not the other – there is evidence the second scenario may not have generated such a strong feeling of joy.

      Hope this helps,

  2. Rob says:

    I mean, none of your photos necessarily strike me as genuine in the sense that I wouldn’t know for sure if you were genuinely expressing a mood or not. I don’t assume that any emotion someone physically expresses around me is necessarily genuine, because it’s so easy to physically smile to try and project happiness. People can easily practice this stuff, it’s literally all physical. It’s why acting exists. You literally took all of those photos to give examples for physically expressing one’s emotions and how the eyes are crucial. It’s about as analytical as possible and the actual smiles were likely totally removed from any genuine emotion which would just prove my point that on some level it’s impossible to ever know when/if/why someone’s trying to mislead you with emotional manipulation.

    I get the point, though. This is useful information for someone who wants to come across more positively with others for their own benign reasons. A natural manipulator probably wouldn’t need to look information up on this sort of thing anyway. lol.

    • Harry says:

      Hey Rob, thanks for your input. You are correct, both smiles shown here can be ‘produced’ without any feeling of true happiness, and the same applies to all the other facial expressions of emotions to. The purpose here is to distinguish from a smile that may simply be used to convey friendliness (the one without the crow’s feet around the eyes), and one that is more likely to be related to joy.


  3. Fatema Alshehhi says:

    So the smile in the left side is the real smile?

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