Scientist's Pick: Worth a Smile
Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' lead staff scientist, Sandra Slutz. Did you miss last month's "Scientist's Pick" write-up? Do you speak Ollie? ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff
Maybe it's the fact that the holiday season is starting, or maybe it's the funny antics of my toddler - but either way I've been noticing people's smiles. And the truth is people smile a lot! But after a bit of people watching (a favorite activity of mine), I've noticed that not all smiles are created equal. For example there are the "I'm having a really good day" smiles, the "nice to meet you" smiles, and the "I'm going to plaster this grin on my face and look happy even if I'm not" smiles. There are probably a dozen more that you could separate out if you sat and watched people for a while.
So do you think you're any good at detecting "genuine" versus "social" smiles? After all that people watching, I sure thought I was! But after taking a 10 minute long Spot the Fake Smile test I was surprised to see how hard it is to tell the difference between a true smile and a false one. Sitting in the café watching people it seemed so easy; probably because of all the other social cues and context. But when it came to just watching videos of people smiling out of context, I wasn't very good at distinguishing the real smiles from the fake ones.
All this piqued my curiosity about the science behind smiles - and our instinctive ability to interpret or accurately read them. After a couple of hours of digging around in psychology literature, I realized that I'm not the only one who is fascinated by smiles. Scientists have been researching smiles for centuries! In fact it was the nineteenth-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who first noticed that we use different muscles for genuine smiles versus social smiles. These two types of smiles also correlate with activity in two very different parts of our brains.
All these observations and research culminated in my writing a Project Idea about smiles for science buddies: That's a Real Smile!...or is it?
This science fair project, which is my scientist's pick of the month, lets you explore how good a group of people are at detecting different types of smiles, as well as their confidence in doing so. I had a lot of fun researching and writing the project. Hopefully, it will be just as fun for the scientists who try it out!
P.S. If you'd like to try another "science of smiling" science fair project check out Is Smiling Contagious?
If you enjoy watching people, check out the other projects in the Human Behavior section of the Science Buddies Project Ideas library.