3 Kinds of Smiles

The smile may be the most common and flexible expression, used to reveal some emotions and cover others. But how do we know what a smile means? UW psychology professor Paula Niedenthal ’81 studied smiles and found that they fall into three broad categories, each of which uses the facial muscles differently to communicate different things.

Reward Smile

Three side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Photos by Paula Niedenthal

“Probably the most intuitive,” Niedenthal says, this is “the kind of smile you would use with a baby, so he will smile back or do things you like.” It’s a symmetrical hoist of facial muscles plus a dash of eyebrow lift and some sharp lip pulling.

Affiliative Smile

Side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Used to communicate tolerance, acknowledgment, or a bond, this smile shows that you’re not a threat — it comes with a similar symmetrical upturn to the mouth, but spread wider and thinner with pressed lips and no exposed teeth.

Dominance Smile

Three side-by-side photos of two men and a woman smiling.

Used to signify status and manage social hierarchies, this smile dispenses with symmetry, pairing a bit of lopsided sneer with the raised brows and lifted cheeks typically associated with expressing enjoyment.

Published in the Winter 2017 issue

Tags: Alumni, Research, Social sciences

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