Study Shows Seeing Smiles Can Lower Aggression

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Getty Images/National Geographic RF / Getty Images/National Geographic RF

Lincoln, Nebraska, United States of America.

A happy face can certainly lift spirits, but can it reduce rage?

Studies have documented that the physical act of smiling is a universal, and effective way to lift mood, if briefly. But in the latest research on the power of the smile, researchers led by Marcus Munafo of the University of Bristol in England found that even seeing smiles on the faces of others can have a profound effect on a person’s tendency toward violence or aggression— that is, as long as that person recognizes the smile as one of happiness, and not as a sneer.

Munafo and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving normal adults as well as highly aggressive teens who had been referred to a youth program, either by educational authorities or the courts. About 70% of the teens already had a criminal record.

(MORE: How to Lift Your Mood? Try Smiling)

In the first experiment, 40 healthy adults, aged 18-30, looked at computer images of faces that had been morphed to show facial expressions that ranged from happy to angry with increasingly difficult to discern expressions in between. Participants were asked how angry they felt and then had to rate the images as displaying either happiness or anger — there was no option for “ambiguous” or “unable to tell.” From these ratings, the scientists were able to generate a score of their biases toward happiness or anger as reflected by where the volunteers decided that happiness ended and anger began.

Previous research found that aggressive people — including violent offenders — tend to interpret even neutral expressions as hostile: “You looking at me?” can easily turn what would have been a nonevent into a tragic confrontation, so preventing such misinterpretations could have important implications.

(MORE: Brain Scans Can Predict Which Criminals Are Likely to Get Re-Arrested)

Based on their initial scores, half of the healthy participants were then told by the computer that some of the ambiguous faces that they had rated as angry should have been scored as happy. This was intended to bias them toward judging the in-between faces more positively. The other 20 received feedback that simply validated their prior choices, creating a control group.

After this training, both groups were tested again and the group that received the biased feedback shifted its ratings of ambiguous faces toward the happy side. Participants were also asked to rate their level of angry feelings again after completing the second round of testing. Those who were trained to interpret ambiguous faces as happier actually reported feeling less angry afterward compared to the controls.

The researchers next focused on the 46 adolescents from the high risk youth program, ranging in age from 11 to 16. These teens completed the same testing, but both the youth and the staff reported on the teens’ levels of aggressive behavior before the testing started and for two weeks afterward. The teens who had been trained to interpret ambiguous facial expressions more positively were significantly less aggressive two weeks later, as rated by both the staff (who did not know which kids were in the intervention group) and by themselves.

(MORE: What Really Causes Violence in Psychosis?)

“The results of our experiments strongly suggest that biases in the perception of emotional facial expressions play a causal role in subjective anger and aggressive behavior,” the authors conclude.

That doesn’t mean that smiles alone are the answer to violence among adolescents — previous research in which antisocial youth were trained to better recognize emotions, for example, did not have any effect on their level of aggressive behavior. But this earlier study focused on improving teens’ perception of clear facial signals, not ambiguous ones. Since ambiguous signals are more prone to misinterpretation, it may be that violent behavior in some youth is perpetuated by their constant misintepretation of angry expressions where they don’t exist, that push them to combative responses. The findings suggest that helping young people, particularly those who are prone to violence, to learn to give others the benefit of the doubt when they see what they think is a threatening face could help end the vicious cycle of violence.

46 comments
mortea
mortea

I think a lot of people don't get this, and I'll admit the title is misleading.  What they are talking about is the way you interpret the faces you see every day, not just when you are having a fit.  The constant messaging that people around me are angry will lead you to be more angry or more aggressive yourself.  It's not saying you see a smiling face or put on a smiling face and you'll change.  It's saying that if you change your interpretation of ambiguous expressions to be more positive, it'll affect your overall mood.  There have been other studies about depression like this, where you see others as down/sad.

Christine Willard
Christine Willard

Stupid. Can't smile when angry. Only pathological liars do that. I know 2.

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

Sounds better than using leeches to reduce blood pressure. #icky

David Banuelos
David Banuelos

Maybe Obama can use that on the N. Korean's fearless leader:)

Shelly Singh Henry
Shelly Singh Henry

Smiles are powerful and good for the immune system. Saw a show on this today.

Stuart Inskip
Stuart Inskip

"a sincere smile can reduce rage". So if you can fake sincerity, you're good.

Rogo Sisk
Rogo Sisk

Don't tell me cuz it might increase my aggression.

Rogo Sisk
Rogo Sisk

How much did they spend on this 'study'?

Lysa White
Lysa White

Working in customer service, I can attest that this is 100% true!

MissWhoeverUR
MissWhoeverUR

@felsull Lie. When I'm in full rage blackout mode a smile is the last thing I want to see. I get angrier when folks don't see the rage