What is worse psychological science, when it shows what everyone already knew (people who look sad on average feel sadder than those who don’t) or when it “proves” nonsense that no one may ever accept?
On the latter, an Israeli-Canadian duo has now published that smiling will make you look … older. In the News: Smiling for the camera makes you look older, Smiling makes you look older, Israeli researchers find, Study: The effects of smiling on perceived age defy belief. Sure, and the moon is made of cheese.
They didn’t leave it at that. After the subjects rated someone smiling older than someone serious, they (wrongly) remembered that they looked younger when smiling. From that must stem the common erroneous “wisdom” that smiling must make you look younger. Really.
And then they found that people look their very youngest when they look very surprised, because then all the creases, lines and wrinkles flatten out. Pull the other leg — it has bells on it.
Never mind how implausible, the media gobbled it up as if the greatest wisdom has been revealed. Don’t pause — publish! Googling today can find you already at least dozens of links to this nonsense from outlets the world over. The chutzpah of the researchers payed off. They declared with great confidence that they have found the truth and others were just mistaken. Then that must be true, no?
How to investigate this, and show where it went wrong.
1. The piece makes fun of popular knowledge which differs from their findings. However, that is the wrong reference for a supposedly scientific article. It should have compared its findings with what colleagues have found before. They do that in a sort of afterthought:
They quote from 2015: Study: Smiling makes you look older, the Israeli researcher is quoting himself. That’s a great way to find agreement.
Then they quote from 2011 (they wrongly date it 2012): In the news: Smiling Makes You Look Younger, Smiling Can Make Women Look Three Years Younger, Reveals Study, Study: Let Me Guess How Old You Are: Effects of Age, Gender, and Facial Expression on Perceptions of Age by a German-US duo – a much larger study, more subjects and more issues, comparing: angry, fearful, disgusted, happy, sad and neutral expressions. They found: “the age of faces displaying happy expressions was most likely underestimated.” Of course.
Then they quote from 2016: In the news: Want to Look Younger and Thinner? Smile!, Study: Be Happy Not Sad for Your Youth: The Effect of Emotional Expression on Age Perception by three US scientists. They found that people who look sad are judged older and who look happy are judged younger than with a neutral expression. Of course.
Now, this new study performs a fantastic trick. It says: Since there is no agreement (between themselves and others) the literature on the subject “is inconsistent” and so there is room for bringing something new. Never mind that they bring the outlier data compared to what others found, and that they should explain the difference.
2. When scientists find different results from other, they should first try to question their own findings. That is science. Not as done here, only play down the findings of others. That is not science. That is politics.
3. I tried to establish if the new study was published in a peer-reviewed publication, but I have not found such description of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Yes, it commits itself to abide by the “Committee on Publication Ethics,” which sounds impressive but that only deals with authorship – not scientific fraud or incompetence. Yes, it has an impressive editorial board, but that doesn’t mean that any of them would review articles before publication!
Now, let us do some of the work that these researchers, editors and journalists seem to have skipped.
A. Smiling is greatly overvalued in the US. Middle-class USers smile when they’re suicidal. Great teeth, lousy honesty.
In contrast, Israelis hate fake, especially fake smiles. Israeli school kids will not smile for the photographer. “How can I smile when I don’t feel like smiling?” Also blank faces Israelis don’t like, but they also don’t mind them. Rather, Israelis like drama. So, shocked faces look the best to an Israeli.
B. Age is greatly undervalued in the US. When you’re old, you have had your day.
Age in Israeli is greatly appreciated, like in most world cultures different from the West.
C. Oh, yes, this thing with checking what the test subjects remembered: Israelis have no memory. I have no idea how anyone in Israel distinguishes people with Alzheimer from the rest of the population. When you ask an Israeli: Could you please repeat the last sentence you said, s/he will typically say: What did I just now say? – and have no idea. Experienced teachers in Hebrew say every sentence twice or trice — with a different intonation but word-for-word the same. So to prove anything from Israelis’ memory is never a proof.
Therefore, you can’t just compare outlying exceptional results of Israeli experiments on smiling and age, with similar US experiments. And especially not, declare the US findings less good, just like that.
No, not the results of this new study are counter-intuitive. All of Israel is counter-intuitive. A proper interpretation of the newest findings is most likely not that smiling makes you look older, but rather that drama and old age makes you look good to an Israeli.