You might have found yourself doing it: smiling when really you're upset or distressed. Why do we do it? It's a question that has divided psychologists. Is it to camouflage our true feelings from others? Or is it because smiling comforts us and protects us from our distress?
Matthew Ansfield of Lawrence University in America believes his new findings argue strongly in favour of the latter explanation. He videoed 80 men and 80 women while they watched disgusting videos, either alone or in the company of someone else. The more disgusting the video, the more distressed the participants said they felt and the more they tended to smile. Moreover, the more they smiled during the video, the less distressed they reported feeling after the video had finished – consistent with the idea that smiling during the video had shielded them from its distressing effect.
Of course this doesn't rule out the idea that the participants may also have been smiling to hide their disgust from others – to appear macho or stoical, perhaps. Indeed, the participants smiled more when they viewed the video with someone else compared with when they viewed it alone. However, Ansfield believes this is because a reluctance to reveal their emotions in the company of others actually made watching the disgusting videos even more distressing, thus providing an even greater need to find comfort in a smile. Consistent with this, those participants, especially the men, who reported feeling more uncomfortable and self-conscious during the disgust video also tended to be the ones who smiled more.
Finally, Anfield argues, if we smile when distressed for social reasons - to hide our negative emotions from others - then how come the participants who smiled during the disgusting videos, were judged less likeable, and deemed to have responded inappropriately, by other participants who saw footage of them? This suggests it wouldn't make sense for us to smile when distressed for social reasons.
Ansfield, M.E. (2007). Smiling when distressed: When a smile is a frown turned upside down. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 763-775.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.