We tend to think that “good people tend to do good things.” But what if it wasn’t a person’s intrinsic “goodness” or personality that influenced their behavior, but something far simpler?
What if a simple smile could change a person’s behavior?
Previous research has shown that a person receives more help when smiling. Do we just respond naturally in a more friendly manner to someone who’s smiling? Or is it a matter of reciprocal altruism — you gave me something — a smile — therefore I’ll give you something in return. Or what if a smile simply enhances our mood — a positive mood — which in turn, enhances our inclination to help?
A few years ago, two French researchers (Gueguen & De Gail, 2003) decided to find out.
As the researchers note, 800 passersby (400 men and 400 women), aged approximately between 20 and 50, served as participants in this experiment. They were randomly selected from passersby who were walking in a supermarket of a medium-size city (more than 100,000 inhabitants) in the west of France, in a good area of town.
Four men and four women, aged 19-21 years old, served as confederates in this experiment — they acted on behalf of the researchers. In half of the cases, the confederate smiled at the passerby.
A few seconds after this interaction, the passersby had the opportunity to help another research confederate who dropped his/her computer diskettes on the ground. The researchers tallied how many passersby stopped to help the second confederate, and whether they had been in the group that had seen the original confederate smile or not.
In the smiling condition, nearly 30 percent of the people stopped to help the person with their diskettes. In the non-smiling condition, only 20 percent of the people stopped, a significant 50% difference between the two conditions.
The results demonstrated that the previous smile of a stranger enhances later helping behavior. The researchers also found that female participants helped male confederates more readily than the female confederates, whereas male participants helped female confederates more often than male confederates. The researchers suggest this was a factor of “traditional roles of self-presentation in opposite-sex behavior” — in other words, typical romantic mating behavior was like the reason.
This and previos studies seem to show that the effect of a positive mood on helping behavior is robust and is very easily obtained. It thus appears possible that the effect of smiling on helping is mediated by a positive mood.
As the researchers summarize:
Our results show that being smiled at by a stranger enhances subsequent helping behavior towards another person. These findings are congruent with [previous research] and confirm the influence of smiling on helping behavior in a new situation.
Furthermore, these findings show that smiling enhances helping behavior toward a person who is not the smiler. These findings are congruent with other results concerning the effect of nonverbal behavior on helping behavior.
Who doesn’t love a great ending?
Want to improve someone else’s day and be a “Good Samaritan” yourself? Smile more often at strangers. You may be doing someone else something good.
Guéguen, N. & De Gail, M-A. (2003). The Effect of Smiling on Helping Behavior: Smiling and Good Samaritan Behavior. Communication Reports, 16(2), 133-140.