When asked, most people would say that a smile takes years off your appearance. According to the latest study, it is quite the reverse. Research shows that, if you want to appear younger, a look of surprise is your best bet.
If you want to stay looking young, there are a number of things you might choose to do - exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep. Also, you might try smiling less.
Smiling is typically associated with youth and vibrancy, and anyone who has ever watched a makeup commercial knows that. However, scientists have discovered that, if you smile, other people will, on average, rate you as older.
A new study from Western University in Canada, published this week in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review proves this point and probes a little deeper into our subconscious.
Breaking down misconceptions
Co-author Melvyn Goodale, director of the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University, says, "There is a belief out there that people who smile look younger than when they're not smiling. Of course, you certainly look happy and healthy when you smile, at peace with yourself, and that probably carries over to the idea that you look younger when you smile."
Earlier research has shown that people often rate smiling faces as younger. The authors of the current paper believe that these results are misleading. Many older studies presented participants with pictures of the same person smiling in one photo and with a neutral expression in the other.
Because of people's misconceptions about perceiving a smiling face as younger, people would respond according to their belief.
In the current study, the authors used a design that ensured this bias would not affect their results. Goodale and co-author Tzvi Ganel, of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, showed participants the same faces photographed smiling and neutral, but arranged them to ensure that each participant only saw either a smiling or neutral version of each person during their trial. In this way, people's natural belief that smiling makes you look younger could not be triggered.
"People were asked to rate how old they thought the faces were. After the study was done, we found people rated the smiling faces, on average, 1 year older than the same faces in neutral expressions."
In a second set of trials, the researchers included images of people wearing a surprised expression. In this instance, people rated the faces to be 2 years younger. So, perhaps the key to looking youthful is to maintain an appearance associated with a constant state of shock.
Contradictions between perception and reality
Perhaps the most surprising part of the findings came when researchers spoke with participants after the main part of the trial was over.
Goodale explains, "When we questioned everybody afterwards, we said, 'Look, we just showed you a whole pile of faces - smiling and neutral. Which expression do you think made people look younger?' And they said, 'Oh, the smiling faces look younger.' Their retrospective account of what they did was totally different from what they actually did."
So, the participants held the belief that they rated smiling faces as younger when, in reality, they rated them as older. From a psychological point of view, this is an interesting result. "People's beliefs don't necessarily correspond to the way they behave; they can hold a belief that's contrary to the way they behave," says Goodale. "This adds to that whole corpus of knowledge that one has to measure behavior directly, rather than simply taking an attitude scale or a rating, because sometimes - though not always - you can be misled."
In an earlier study, Ganel found that wrinkles around the eyes contribute to the perception of increased age with smiling. Conversely, a surprised face stretches the wrinkles from the eyes, giving a more youthful appearance.
Although this type of study may not make great waves in medical science, the findings are part of a larger project; Goodale and his team are interested in "the relationship between belief and judgment about faces."
Whether we know it is right or not, we all make snap judgments about people after glancing at their face. For better or worse, it is human nature. As we evolved in the wild, it was vital to quickly gauge whether someone was a threat, and their face could tell us a story.
Added to this, it was better to accidentally assess another person as a threat and be wrong than make a mistake and assume they were safe when they were not. Because of this, we have ingrained responses to faces. The more we understand about these automatic responses, the easier we will be able to break them down and control them.