To follow up this correlational data with experimental evidence, the researchers conducted a second study in which they presented participants with the same pictures used in Study 1, but this time one of the pictures was manipulated to have either a smile or a neutral expression. They then asked participants to rate the fighters along a series of personality dimensions as well as questions measuring perceived hostility, aggression and dominance. As expected, participants rated the smiling fighter as less hostile, less aggressive and less dominant. Importantly, this study suggests that the results of Study 1 were in fact attributable to the intensity of fighter’s smiles, as opposed to some other feature of their body or face.
You might interpret this as a kind of “nice guys finish last” effect. But that’s not quite right. The authors also looked at whether smile intensity in the pre-fight photos predicted dominance and outcomes in other future fights. If the smiles are just helping us separate the gentle from the aggressive, then the nice guys should be performing consistently worse than their more hostile counterparts. This was not the case. These smiles are context-specific; they reveal something about the power dynamics between only these two fighters, not something enduring about the kinds of people that these fighters are. A fighter, smiling against opponent A because he knows he is outmatched, might be stone-faced when up against the weaker opponent B (who, by extension, would in that circumstance be reduced to a grinning fool).
Though the researchers are clear that they cannot know exactly why fighters are smiling, they suspect that it is an unintentional display. It is possible, however, that fighters, and others in competitive contexts, use these kinds of submissive cues strategically to lull their opponents into a false sense of dominance. Keeping one’s enemies closer might in some circumstances be effective. But it’s clear from these data that fights are not one such circumstance. Strategic or not, smiles before the outcome of a competition has been decided are not winning ones.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.