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The phenomenon of contagious smiling Essay

What is a smile and is smiling contagious? A smile is a facial expression formed by flexing those muscles most notably near both ends of the mouth (Wikipedia). Essentially, “a smile is a curve that sets everything straight,” (Dyer 2011). People of all ages smile for numerous reasons. The most common reason for smiling is to display the emotion of happiness. However, sometimes people smile just to be friendly or polite and sometimes they may smile as a sign that they think they recognize or know you. Regardless of race, age, gender or the specific reason, at one time or another everybody smiles.

The question of the day is: Is smiling contagious? Surprisingly, the answer is YES! “You only need to flash a smile at someone to raise a smile in them” (Dyer 2011). According to Dyer, smiling is actually good for us. Smiling makes us feel better by reducing blood pressure. Smiling also minimalizes stress and produces and releases specific hormones into our brain, such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which also makes us feel good (Dyer 2011).

Observation and research combined have convinced scientists and spiritual leaders to agree that a simple smile can “transform the world around you.” (Hatfield, Cacioppo, Rapson, Clark 1992) A Swedish study showed that when subjected to pictures of various emotionally filled facial expressions, a “conscious” effort was necessary by the participant to not imitate the facial expression in picture shown (Sonnby–Borgström, 2002). This study proved to be true with numerous different facial expressions showing emotion. The Swedish study included the emotions of fear, sadness, excitement and happiness. Surprisingly all of the emotions seemed to be contagious. When passed in a natural setting, people are less likely to smile if they do not encounter someone smiling at them.

The display of facial expressions is controlled by the cingulate cortex, which is an unconscious automatic response area located within the human brain (O’Doherty Et al., 2003). The phenomenon of contagious smiling can also be classified as directly relating to the operation of our mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are specialized neurons that fire not only when a person enacts a particular behavior but also when they observe another individual carrying out the same behavior (Wikipedia). I conducted a procedure through a disguised observation method of subjects at the local race track, the nail salon, multiple convenience stores and the local grocery store.

Through this observation process I was able to record how many people would smile if they were encountered by someone displaying a straight face by not bearing a smile. To collect the data, I recorded the number of people who were smiling when I passed them with a without bearing a smile in the four specified natural settings chosen for my observation. The behavior examples were taken at various different times of the day over a three week period. During the experimental period, I observed and recorded a total of two hundred forty subjects. There were one hundred fifty recorded at the race track, fifteen at the nail salon, twenty-five at the grocery store and fifty during numerous visits to convenience stores at various times of the day. As can be seen in figure one, my recorded results from the race track included fifty-eight out of one hundred fifty smiling subjects when I encountered them not displaying a smile on my own face.

While visiting the nail salon my recorded results included six out of fifteen people were smiling without first observing a smile from me, which can be seen in figure two. Figure three illustrates the results during my bi-weekly visit to the grocery store. A mere three out of twenty-five recorded subjects were smiling when I walked past them. In the comparison of recorded subjects, the smallest amount of smiling was found at convenience stores. As can be seen in figure four, there were only ten out of fifty subjects that initially smiled at me while at the convenience store. Although a few subjects I observed were smiling even though I had only a blank facial expression, the majority of the subjects were not. The handful of subjects that I encountered at the various locations that smiled at me in passing caused me to want to smile back.

The results of my observation indicate that unless approached by a smile, the typical human behavior is not to smile unless there is an underlying purpose. The race track and nail salon subjects were considerably more likely to smile initially than those in the grocery store or convenience stores. The recordings at the race track had a thirty-nine percent result of smiling subjects, which is considerably higher than the grocery store of twelve percent and the convenience store of ten percent. Much to my surprise, the results of the subjects I observed at the nail salon were higher than any of the other three structurally observed locations.

My observation returned a forty percent smile rate at the nail salon. The average of this data concludes that twenty-five percent of my subjects smiled without an initial smile from myself. Variables such as possible recognition or the atmosphere of the natural setting being observed could play a part in the number of smiles encountered without smiling at the subjects first. The minimally higher results at the race track and at the nail salon are likely due to repetitive contact with some of the same subjects or possibly due to the reason the subject is there. Some things like watching the races or getting a pedicure would be expected to result in a higher level of happiness than grocery shopping. Over a three week time span, my observation results support the theory that smiling is in fact contagious.

According to the previously cited study by Dyer, “you only need to flash a smile at someone to raise one in them” (Dyer 2011). Smiling is not only contagious and can be spread like a virus or epidemic, it also causes happiness within one’s self that could assist in making the world a happier place. People tend to smile when they encounter another person who is smiling at them. Smiling is an unconscious automatic response to being initially greeted with a smile.

Try it for yourself. The next time you pass someone on the street or in a store that is walking along with a blank gaze on their face; shoot them a smile. Without any additional communication from yourself, you will notice that most likely the person will smile back at you. Through my observation this proved to be true an average of eighty-nine percent of the time. Research has also proven that smiling will subconsciously lift your mood, as well as the mood of others around you (Hatfield, Cacioppo, Rapson, Clark 1992). When passed in natural setting, such as entertainment venues, the grocery store, nail salon or just the convenience store down the street, people are more likely to smile if they notice someone smiling at them.

No further communication is necessary… only a smile on your face! Previous studies and research have determined that something as simple as a smile on someone’s face requires a conscious effort not to imitate (Sonnby–Borgström, 2002). The subconscious reaction of smiling back at someone can be linked to the firing of mirror neurons which are located in the automatic response area of our brain, called the cingulated cortex (O’Doherty Et al., 2003). I conducted the second portion of my procedure through disguised observation as well. For the observation process I used the same four locations as my original procedure. While at the race track, I recorded the observation results of one hundred fifty subjects.

While getting my second pedicure in a month I recorded the observation results of fifteen subjects. During my second highly dreaded trip to the grocery store I recorded the observation results of twenty-five subjects. However, I must say that doing this trip to the grocery store with a smile on my face made for a more enjoyable experience than the first. During the second three week period I also made multiple trips to convenience stores at various different times of the day. During the multiple visits to convenience stores, I recorded the observation results of fifty people. The only thing I changed from the preceding three week observation procedure was my facial expression, also known as the control variable. Rather than an emotionless facial expression, I planted a big smile on my face and continued my observation.

With a smile on my face and a pen in hand, I recorded the behavioral examples of the subjects that I greeted with a smile in passing. With a smile on my face for the second half of my observation period, I recorded the results of two hundred forty subjects. For observational purposes I did not place importance on the variables of race, age or gender in my recorded subjects. Observation at the track resulted in one hundred thirty-two out of one hundred fifty recorded subjects with a returning smile when they were initially greeted with a smile, which can be seen in figure one. This was even higher than the number of smiles I encountered before. Illustrated in figure two, the nail salon also proved the theory true with fourteen out of fifteen subjects returning my smile with one of their own.

During my second trip to the grocery store, twenty out of the twenty-five recorded subjects smiled back when they were initially greeted in passing with a smile on my face. This can be seen in figure three. Throughout the two week observation period while smiling at the world, I made numerous visits to convenience stores where I also obtained positive results. Surprisingly, forty-three out of the fifty subjects that I approached with a smile on my face gave a smile in return. These results can be viewed in figure four. The results of my structured observation while smiling were phenomenal. Something as simple as a smile on my face not only made me personally feel better. It also made a vast difference in the number of smiles I was able to record from my observed subjects.

The results of this observation conclude that the typical human behavior is to smile back when greeted with a smile, therefore confirming my theory that smiling is contagious. As with the first portion of my observation, being at the race track and nail salon resulted in a slightly higher percentage of smiling, than did the grocery store or convenience store visits. The race track results came in at a very high eighty-eight percent success rate of receiving a returning smile. The recorded data from my observation at the nail salon returned an astonishing ninety-three percent of subjects that returned a smile when they were encountered with a smile initially.

The observation of convenience store subjects returned an eighty-six percent result of returning smiles. Subjects that were observed in the grocery store were slightly less likely to smile in return. However, there was still a high smile returning rate of eighty percent of those recorded subjects. Although the results were not unanimous, the number of smiles received in return was substantially higher when the subjects were greeted with a smile than they were without a facial expression signifying happiness. The phenomenon of contagious smiling proved correct throughout my disguised observation process. Since the results were recorded at various times and locations there are some factors that could have played a part in the results that were reached. For instance, people at the race track are there to have fun. It is something that they enjoy.

The joy of getting to race or watching a race could affect the possibility that these subjects were already in a good mood. Another reason for the higher smiling rate at the track could be caused by fact that a lot of the subjects may recognize me and could be smiling for that reason. The nail salon had considerably more smiles recorded than any other setting that I observed. This could possibly be a result of the fact that most people in the nail salon are relaxing which would make a smile come more naturally. In a happy, exciting or relaxing environment such as the race track and nail salon, the recorded number of smiling faces was also higher during the smiling half of my observation period. Even considering all factors which may have caused greater results in the enjoyable settings of the race track and nail salon, this observation definitely verifies the accuracy of my theory that smiling is contagious!


Dyer, P. (2011) YoU Can’t resist A sMIle. The contagious Power of Thinking: How Your Thouhts Can Influence the World, 165. Primitive emotional contagion. Hatfield, Elaine; Cacioppo, John T.; Rapson, Richard L. Clark, Margaret S. (Ed), (1992). Emotion and social behavior. Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 14., (pp. 151-177). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc, xi, 311 pp. O’Doherty, J., Winston, J., Critchley, H. Perrett, D., Burt, D.M., and Dolan R.J., (2003) Beauty in a smile: the role of medial orbitofrontal cortex in facial attractiveness. Neuropsychologia, 41, 147–155. Sonnby–Borgström, M. (2002), Automatic mimicry reactions as related to differences in emotional empathy. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 43: 433–443. “Smile” Wikipedia.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smile

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