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Smiling Often Driven by Feeling of Engagement, Social or Not

Smiling Often Driven by Feeling of Engagement, Social or Not

It is widely assumed that we smile because we are happy, and/or that it is a natural response to interacting with other living beings.

While these are often the case, U.K. researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) found that smiling may stem from another source. They discovered that smiling is often triggered by a feeling of engagement — even if it’s engagement with a non-living object.

Dr. Harry Witchel, discipline leader in physiology at BSMS and a body language expert, claims that people often behave during human-computer-interaction (HCI) as if they were socially engaged.

For the study, BSMS researchers observed 44 participants aged 18 to 35 as they played a geography quiz game on the computer. The game consisted of nine difficult questions, resulting in the participants getting many of the answers wrong. Seated participants interacted with a computer alone in a room while their facial expressions were video recorded.

After the quiz, the participants were asked to rate their subjective experience using a range of 12 emotions including ‘bored’, ‘interested’ and ‘frustrated.’ Meanwhile, their spontaneous facial expressions were computer analyzed frame-by-frame in order to determine how much they were smiling based on a scale of between 0 to 1.

“According to some researchers, a genuine smile reflects the inner state of cheerfulness or amusement,” Witchel said. “However, Behavioural Ecology Theory suggests that all smiles are tools used in social interactions; that theory claims that cheerfulness is neither necessary nor sufficient for smiling.

“Our study showed that in these Human-Computer Interaction experiments, smiling is not driven by happiness; it is associated with subjective engagement, which acts like a social fuel for smiling, even when socializing with a computer on your own.”

Statistically, the emotion that was most associated with smiling was ‘engagement’ rather than ‘happiness’ or ‘frustration.’

The frame-by-frame smile analysis broke down each of the nine questions into a question and answer period. Participants did not tend to smile during the period when they were trying to figure out the answers.

However, the participants did smile right after the computer game informed them if their answer was correct or wrong, and surprisingly, they smiled more often when they got the answer wrong.

“During these computerized quizzes, smiling was radically enhanced just after answering questions incorrectly. This behavior could be explained by self-ratings of engagement, rather than by ratings of happiness or frustration,” Witchel said.

Source: University of Sussex


Smiling Often Driven by Feeling of Engagement, Social or Not

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Smiling Often Driven by Feeling of Engagement, Social or Not. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Sep 2018 (Originally: 9 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Sep 2018
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