We’ve all done it: whether we’re pretending to love a bad birthday present or posing for an uncomfortable family photo, everyone puts on a fake grin sometimes. But can a fake smile be detected? Research says that you may not be getting away with that fake smile after all, and the secret—surprisingly—is in the eyes.
The most famous work on fake smiles has come from the French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne. Duchenne looked at the physiological differences between authentic smiles and forced smiles. His research, followed by the more contemporary research of psychologist Paul Ekman, uncovered that while both real and fake smiles involved the movement of the zygomatic major muscles around the mouth (the ones that pull your mouth into an upward curve shape), only authentic, happy smiles showed muscle movement around the eyes and cheeks, in the orbicularis oculi muscles.
Because of Duchenne’s groundwork in the study of smiles, researchers now call an authentic display of happiness a “Duchenne smile.” Of course, that doesn’t exactly answer our question: can other people tell if your grin is a Duchenne smile or not?
Turns out, various studies have looked at this exact question, and the results say both yes and no. The truth is that it’s usually pretty easy for people to tell if you try to pull off a non-Duchenne smile, or a fake smile. Various studies have found individual differences in people’s ability to detect fake smiles, but we as humans seem predisposed to detect when smiles are genuine. So while some of the people who see you flash a forced smile may think it’s real, most people (especially those who know you well) will see right through a non-Duchenne smile. Have a look above and tell us whether you think these guy's smiles are genuine or fake.
However, the good news for all you fake-smilers out there is that you may be able to do a convincing Duchenne smile even if you’re not happy in your current situation. Still, this occurs only for a part of the population, and only some of the time. So, whether you’re looking out for a fake smile on someone else or trying to pull off one of your own, remember that a smile is more than just turning a frown upside down: it involves a engaging your whole face.
That doesn’t mean that fake smiles are all bad. Other research shows that “faking it until you make it” holds true in smiling too. A famous study found that when people hold a fake smile for a certain amount of time, they were more “buffered” against feelings of stress. So, even if you can’t fool your friends with a fake smile, you may be able to trick yourself into feeling a little better!