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The Power of a Smile

January 12, 2013

By Soledad de Lemus (Universidad de Granada, Spain), Russell Spears (Groningen University, NL), & Miguel Moya (Universidad de Granada, Spain)

The smile remains something of a mystery.  We  smile when we feel happy, but smilessmiles are more than just the outward display of an inner emotion. We are far more likely to smile when we are with other people because a smile is a message: just one more way for people to communicate information to and establish social ties with other people.

A smile, though, sometimes means more than just “I am happy.” Just as many species bare their teeth to signal their dominance and rank, smiles exchanged among humans serve an interpersonal, regulatory function.  In our research we wanted to understand how smiles, which usually serve to signal  positive affiliation, also define status in the social hierarchy when the smile is coupled with other nonverbal information (e.g., posture). Specifically, we studied women’s nonverbal reaction to a man’s smile: will she, in addition to smiling back, also display signs of submissiveness, such as downcast eyes or a narrowing posture?

For social psychologists interested in gender, patronizing and paternalistic forms of discrimination have become a key focus of research in recent years. There are good reasons for this. Forms of prejudice and discrimination that are subtle make them more difficult to recognize and resist (Jackman, 1994), and these forms can be expressed more easily. For instance, gender relations are characterized by a power difference between men and women such that the men are considered as more worthy (e.g., as more competent, agentic than women) but women as friendlier, and more socially-oriented than men;  attributes that some consider to be important but less valuable in society. Further, gender stereotypes prescribe dominance to men compared to women, who are often expected to behave in a more submissive way to comply with the stereotypes of their group.

Other researchers have diligently explored how behaving in a complementary way in a social interaction helps to maintain positive relations, facilitating achievement of common goals. That is, when people are working together on a task with another person and they want to succeed in this task and also to maintain a positive interpersonal relations,  they will often respond to the other person’s behavior in a complementary way. This tendency generates interpersonal complementarity:  If one behaves in a dominant manner, the other will be more submissive (or vice versa), as long as there is a positive affiliation between them (e.g., they see each other as friendly and cooperative).These results have been found also when observing the non-verbal behavior of people during interpersonal interactions (Tiedens & Fragale, 2003).

Bringing together these two ideas (the role of power in gender relations, and the existence of complementary behavior in interpersonal relations), we hypothesized that in an affiliative setting—with smiles serving as strong signals of the situation’s positive emotional tone—people will display complementarity: in response to dominant behavior they will become more submissive, especially when gender is salient (i.e. in an intergroup context) providing a gender stereotypic basis for dominance vs. submission. When the context is more competitive (not affiliative –no smiling) the motivation will be to contest (compete with) the dominant behaviour, instead of complementing it.

We tested our hypotheses in three studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (de Lemus, Spears, & Moya, 2012). We presented women with different recordings of a male confederate adopting a dominant (or submissive) posture, while he was giving them instructions on how to perform a story-telling task. Across the studies we experimentally manipulated the posture the confederate instructor held (dominant or submissive), his facial expression (smiling or non-smiling), and the verbal message he gave to vary the salience of gender (focusing on individual or gender differences). In some cases where gender differences were made salient we also reinforced this by having him make a sexist remark (or not).

We recorded the behavior of the female students while they were listening to his instructions, at different time-points, and we later analyzed the changes in their body posture overtime, as well as coding for their facial expressions during the interaction.The key finding of our research is that when women interact with a man in a setting in which gender is salient (i.e., their gender group membership is important), women tend to comply with the submissive stereotype especially if men are showing their dominance while smiling. Interestingly, this happens even when the man is making an explicitly sexist remark (“Let’s see if the women can learn a little something from the men!”). In other words, we find that dominant sexist behavior when coupled with a smile (“sexism with a smile”, so to speak) leads to more submissive complementary behavior in women.


Figure 1. Simple mediation model of perceived warmth of the confederate, on the effect of smile on the change in posture over time

Some of our results suggest that the reason why the smile provokes such complementary reactions in women is that it triggers a positive evaluation of the man in warmth terms (i.e. maintaining a positive social bond). That is, the smiling man is perceived as “warmer” and this leads to more acceptance of his dominance (see Figure 1). In the social psychology literature the perception of warmth is associated with positive interdependence (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, &Xu, 2002).  That is, when we encounter someone we ask ourselves the question whether that person is a “friend or foe”, and the answer to that question determines whether we want to cooperate with that person or not. Arguably, smiling leads others to think that we are “friends” and they should therefore, cooperate with us. In the context of gender relations, cooperating with a dominant man implies behaving submissively, which ends up reinforcing the traditional gender stereotype.

Our research supports the argument that certain forms of prejudice and discrimination (sexism) that are subtle (disguised with a smile) make them more difficult to recognize and resist. The other way to frame our findings (perhaps in a more positive tone), is that when the smile is not present, women do seem to challenge male sexist dominance. This is, to some extent, a positive finding in terms of gender equality. We conclude our paper saying that “if women sustain the cycle of sexism unconsciously through their behavior this makes achieving gender equality harder than we might have thought. However, this implies that raising consciousness is literally as well as metaphorically the way forward.”

Author Information


Soledad de Lemus is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Granada (Spain). Her main research interests are social psychology of gender, prejudice and intergroup relations more broadly. Currently, her main research project relates to the study of implicit forms of resistance to social disadvantage.


Russell Spears is Professor of Psychology at University of Groningen. His research interests are in social identity and intergroup relations (especially intergroup discrimination, and collective action and the role of group-based emotions in these phenomena), social stereotyping, social influence and power.


Miguel Moya is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Granada (Spain). His main research interests are gender and prejudice, focusing in recent years on ambivalent sexism. He is also interested on research about social class, trust and educational/occupational aspirations.


de Lemus, S., Spears, R. & Moya, M. (2012). The power of a smile to move you: Complementary submissiveness in women’s posture as a function of gender salience and facial expression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1480-1494. doi: 10.1177/0146167212454178

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and Warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 6, 878-902.

Jackman, M. R. (1994).The velvet glove: Paternalism and conflictin gender, class, and race relations. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tiedens, L. Z., & Fragale, A. R. (2003). Power moves: Complementarity in dominant and submissive nonverbal behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 558-568.

Image Credit:  Smiles (“Business Person With Cash”) courtesy of “Ambro” – view portfolio (ID: 10013658) /

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