Leaders smile in a way that says they’re feeling the emotions their followers crave

Trump’s grin may reflect the American
aspiration for high excitement

Deep into these highly-charged US presidential primaries, I’m taken by the colourful – sometimes cartoonish – diversity of personas on display. But despite their political and personality differences, new research in the journal Emotion suggests that if these American leadership aspirants are like other US leaders, they are all likely to have at least one thing in common – the way they smile will be coloured by the “ideal affect” of their culture: the high excitement of the American Way.

A large multinational research team led by Jeanne L. Tsai, pored over reams of photographs of leaders, and employed Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to analyse their facial expressions. The researchers were smile-hunting, and they were specifically interested in two variants: calm smiles, which involve a wrinkling of the eyes and a widening of the mouth, and excited smiles, which involve extra muscle action to part the lips and open the jaw. They hypothesised that leaders of nations that prize high arousal positive emotions – as the US has been shown to do – should be keen to demonstrate these through excited smiles. Meanwhile, calm smiles should be preferred by Chinese and other cultures that consider lower arousal emotions to be more desirable. In short, they wanted to test the idea that political leaders manifest the feelings that voters aspire to experience themselves.

The researchers began by looking at close to 500 official, posed photographs of US and Chinese leaders, from government, business and university positions. No significant cultural differences were found for calm smile rates, but this is likely because the Chinese leaders overwhelmingly preferred serious expressions to smiles, and calm smiles were rare in both cultures. In contrast, American leaders not only smiled more often, but they showed an abundance of excited smiling – overall, there were six times as many of these smiles in the US photos compared with the Chinese.

But this finding might have nothing to do with people’s aspirations. Maybe Americans, including American leaders, are simply more excitable than the Chinese and people from other cultures. To investigate further, the researchers gathered data on a wider range of countries – more Eastern ones including Japan and South Korea, and more Western ones including Germany, the UK and also Mexico. They analysed thousands of photos of leaders drawn from these countries’ respective legislative assemblies, and they asked roughly 150 students per nation to rate emotion words such as “euphoric” and “quiet” in terms of how typical and ideal these feelings are in their culture. In addition, the researchers looked at differences between the countries in terms of their development, wealth and democracy.

Tsai and his colleagues found that nations that idealise high-energy positive emotions were more likely to have excited smiling leaders, even after controlling statistically for the influence of other national differences, including wealth or the typical levels of high arousal experienced in each country. A similar pattern held for calm smiles, which turned out to be most frequent in France and Germany where low arousal positive emotions are the most idealised.

These new findings are consistent with past research that’s shown differences in national culture manifest more strongly in the emotions that people consider ideal, rather than in the emotional states which make up our lives – our actual emotional experiences are more heavily coloured by our individual dispositions and by human commonalities.

Trump, Clinton, Sanders and Rubio may be tight-lipped and statesmanlike at times, but look out for that bared-teeth grin emanating from their official feeds and photo-shoots. Not because it reflects how these would-be leaders feel. But because it’s a signal of the emotion that the American people crave.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Tsai, J., Ang, J., Blevins, E., Goernandt, J., Fung, H., Jiang, D., Elliott, J., Kölzer, A., Uchida, Y., Lee, Y., Lin, Y., Zhang, X., Govindama, Y., & Haddouk, L. (2016). Leaders’ smiles reflect cultural differences in ideal affect. Emotion, 16 (2), 183-195 DOI: 10.1037/emo0000133

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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