How can a person who’s acted uncooperative or untrustworthy win back another person’s trust? By smiling … but not just any kind of smile. Instead, a new study by Magdalena Rychlowska from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues has revealed that a specific kind of smile is necessary to win back trust.
Before we delve into the specifics of the study and its findings, let’s step back to note that broadly speaking, there are three types of smiles: smiles of reward, smiles of affiliation and smiles of dominance. A reward smile is encouraging and signals that the person is happy. An affiliation smile is used to build and maintain social bonds, whereas a dominance smile - like its name implies - reinforces the smiler’s superiority or status.
Rychlowska and colleagues carried out five studies with more than 900 participants to examine how participants reacted to the various types of smiles after they had been treated badly by a member of a different group.
“Facial expressions are very important in building social relationships and not all smiles are an expression of joy – there is much more behind a smile,” said Rychlowska, “We found that when a person smiled after being uncooperative or untrustworthy, they were viewed as being happy and therefore they appeared untrustworthy and unwilling to change their behaviour. However, when an affiliation smile was used, this was perceived as an attempt to make amends, restoring higher levels of trust than the other two smiles.”
The study showed that smiling does not automatically lead to trust - instead, the right kind of smile in a particular context is important. “Smiling at another person does not always lead to trust and cooperation. Subtle differences in a smile can have a real impact on whether people trust each other and choose to cooperate. In fact, the way you smile in a good or bad situation can impact whether people trust you,” added co-author Stephanie Carpenter of University of Michigan.
To further illustrate the concept, Rychlowska noted that in the movies, a villain could display a happy smile before he or she is about to do something bad. In this context, that smile of reward feels threatening or unpleasant.
“The findings of this study show the power of subtle facial expressions and the positive consequences that an affiliation smile can have in difficult situations. It also highlights the importance of social context – a happy smile that could be read as a signal of trustworthiness in one setting can, in another setting, be seen as evidence of bad intentions,” added Rychlowska.
Video clips: Magdalena Rychlowska et al/Cognition and Emotion
Video clip of affiliation smile
Video clip of dominance smile
Video clip of a neutral facial expression
Video clip of a regretful facial expression
Video clip of a reward smile