Does your boss smile back at you when he passes by? It might not always be a friendly gesture!
According to a new study, those who feel powerful tend not to smile back at important people, saving their smiles instead for those below them in the hierarchy.
Researchers from the University of California asked 55 young men and women to write about a time when they felt powerful—such as leaving home to go to university—or powerless, the Daily Mail reported.
Participants were then hooked up to equipment that measures the activity of key facial muscles, and were asked to watch short video clips of people with jobs with different levels of prestige, who were smiling or frowning at them.
As they watched, the equipment measured the activity of the zygomaticus major—the ‘smiling muscle’ that raises the corner of the mouth.
It also gave readouts for the corrugator supercilii, the ’frowning muscle’ that furrows the brow and is frozen by Botox.
The results showed that the volunteers were more likely to scowl in response to a frown from a doctor or someone in a position of power.
The men and women who felt powerful tended not to smile back at high-fliers.
However, they did return the smiles of those who were lower down the pecking order—and their smiles were bigger.
Those who felt powerless smiled at everyone, regardless of their rank, the study found.
The researchers believe that people who feel powerful try to exert their dominance by not appearing too friendly to those who might be a threat. They have no such qualms about appearing approachable to those who lack authority.
“Our interpretation of this is that when you are feeling powerful and see a low-status person, you are almost throwing them a bone, thinking ‘Oh, I should smile at this person because I’m better than them’,” said researcher Evan Carr.
Changes in the volunteers’ expressions were too small to be seen by the eye but Evan Carr said clearly visible smiles may follow the same pattern.
He added it is likely that the decision to suppress or return a smile occurs subconsciously.
The study was presented in the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in New Orleans.