Smiling Makes People Think You’re Younger

Smiling Makes People Think You’re Younger

Smiling more can certainly make you look happier, but can putting on a grin make you appear younger, too? Yes – according to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and Yale University in the US.

In their study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, the scientists write that despite the fact we use age as one of the primary ways we describe someone we’ve just met – along with gender, race, and height – very little research has been conducted on how accurately we guess another person’s age.
So, whether you’re on the witness stand testifying in court or meeting someone for the first time at a party, how does a person’s facial expression affect how old you think they are?


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To answer this question, the team used a set of more than 2,000 photographs of models showing a variety of different emotions. The models ranged in age from 19 years to 80 years, and each adult was photographed conveying 6 different expressions: angry, afraid, sad, disgusted, happy and neutral. Same people showing different moods; without jewelry, makeup or eyewear, all in similar gray shirts.

Then the researchers asked a total of 154 young, middle-aged and older study subjects to rate the age of each of the models from their photographs. In all, more than 135,000 ratings were collected and analyzed.

The result? The most accurate age guesses happened with models in a neutral expression, suggesting it’s easier to estimate a person’s correct age when they are not conveying an emotional facial expression.

This likely explains why most official documents like passport photos require a neutral facial expression.

The least accurate guesses were of smiling models; these adults were judged on average to be about two years younger than their actual age.

How did the study subjects’ own age affect their ratings? Younger subjects tended to judge the age of younger models most accurately, as did older subjects when rating older models’ ages.
Why do we judge smiling people to be younger than they are? Voelkle and his colleagues write that it may simply relate to negative stereotypes about aging, since youth is usually associated with positive feelings and characteristics, while older age is viewed in a more negative light.

Secondly, previous research has shown that when people smile they’re perceived to be more physically attractive, and since younger faces are also generally seen as more attractive, it follows that happy faces may lead people to guess that you’re younger than your true chronological age.

How sincere does the smile have to be, to be “anti-aging”?  Maybe not at all, according to some intriguing research published in 2012.  University of Kansas psychologists discovered that even a fake smile – prompted when subjects held a chopstick between their teeth in a kind of forced grimace – offered relief during stressful tasks.  While researcher Sarah Pressman tells me that putting on a smile likely won’t cure long-term problems like marital conflict or job angst, it may offer relief for short-term pressure like being preparing for a presentation or being stuck in traffic.

Bottom line:  While the anti-aging effects of smiling were shown to shave only a couple of years off a person’s perceived age in this study, laughter and smiling can boost your immunity, relieve stress and foster stronger relationships.  With no real down side, why not try acting “as if”, using happy expressions and positive language to feel more optimistic and less stressed-out?  It’s bound to improve your outlook as well as your appearance.