The idea that smiling makes you look younger is a persistent one, rooted in common sense intuitions about health and happiness and reinforced by culture, media and consumerism, where skin care products and dentists keep telling us that the secret to longevity is in showing off your smile to the world.
Not so much, it turns out, as a new study from Western University in London, Ontario, and Ben-Gurion University in Israel finds that not only do people perceive smiling faces to be older than neutral ones but that people are unaware of how wrong their judgments really are.
“The striking thing was that when we asked participants afterwards about their perceptions, they erroneously recalled that they had identified smiling faces as the youngest ones,” said Melvyn Goodale, director of the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University and the study’s co-author, in a press release. “They were completely blind to the fact they had ‘aged’ the happy-looking faces.”
Researchers showed images of smiling and neutral-expressioned men and women (average age of 25 years) to a group of students and asked them to estimate their age. Then, in a second experiment, participants were asked to evaluate the ages of smiling, neutral and surprised faces. In both cases, smiling faces were rated as older than neutral ones, and in the second experiment, surprised faces came out looking the youngest.
And when asked afterwards about their own judgments on the images, participants consistently reported that smiling faces looked younger than non-smiling ones.
“Our results make it clear that the same person can believe that smiling makes one appear younger but at the same time judge smiling faces as older than neutral faces,” say the study’s authors, whose research is published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
The researchers suggest that our judgments are influenced by the wrinkles that form around the eyes when we smile and are less evident in neutral expressions. A surprised face, on the other hand, has the effect of decreasing the amount of wrinkles around the eyes, hence the reason why a shocked face looks younger.
Guessing a person’s age by their facial expressions has been studied before, to mixed results. A 2012 study in Berlin, Germany, found that accurately judging the age of older faces was more difficult than doing so for younger faces and that the age of happy faces was more difficult to accurately read than the age of neutral faces.
A 2016 study from the University of Missouri-Kansas City found that sad facial expressions make young people look older than they really are and, contrary to the previous assumption on wrinkles, older people look younger when they smile.
Still another investigation in 2015 concluded that, on average, smiling takes two years off your face and miserable expressions add a year. As reported in the Daily Mail, however, that research was conducted by cosmetics company Nivea to mark the launch of a new anti-wrinkle cream, so we’ll let you be the judge of that one.