sanneberg/ShutterstockPicture the scene. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business when a stranger passes you by. They don’t say anything at all, but they do give you the smallest, briefest smile. In an instant and almost unwillingly, you’re doing the same thing. You just can’t help it—no matter what mood you happened to be in, you caught their smile.
For some odd and until now inexplicable reason, when we see someone’s face light up with nothing but sheer joy, we just can’t stop ourselves reciprocating.
In honor of World Smile Day (the first Friday in October), it’s time we got some real answers on this very pressing matter. With all this grinning going on in the world, it really does beg the all-important question: Is smiling contagious?
Well, according to a study published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal, the answer could well be yes. As part of the research, social psychologists, Paula Niedenthal and Adrienne Wood looked into why we often mimic the facial expressions of our peers when we talk to them.
Interestingly enough, one of the conclusions that the researchers drew was that we “try on” the emotions of others when we are communicating with them. So, for example, when a friend tells us some gleeful news and looks happy and joyful, we may unconsciously display the same emotion through our facial expression. In doing so, we have a chance to feel and understand their emotions. (Here’s how you can improve your emotional intelligence.)
“You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action—you approach the person or you avoid the person,” explains Niedenthal. “Your own emotional reaction to the face changes your perception of how you see the face, in such a way that provides you more information about what it means.”
So, the reason we smile when someone smiles at us is that we want to feel the same way as that person. It is through this small social kink that we’re able to have a deep level of communication and comprehension with the people around us. (Find out the science-backed benefits of smiling.)
However, this is not the case for everyone out there. Within the research, the psychologists note that those with central or peripheral motor diseases, who cannot accurately mimic others’ expressions, often have a problem with this level of communication. Although they can recognize when someone is smiling at them, they are not always able to offer the same expression back.
“There are some symptoms in autism where lack of facial mimicry may in part be due to suppression of eye contact. It may be over-stimulating socially to engage in eye contact, but under certain conditions, if you encourage eye contact, the benefit is spontaneous or automatic facial mimicry,” explains Niedenthal. (Here are more signs your child could be on the autism spectrum.)
Since facial expressions make up a large portion of our communication, they are very important in social dynamics and can help us to build relationships and bonds with others. So, to answer the question “Is smiling contagious?”—yes, it most certainly is. If you’ve yet to crack a grin on this World Smile Day, go ahead and spread the joy—flash those pearly whites and watch the world do the same!