A Smile: The Facial Expression That Unexpectedly Makes You Look ‘Cool’

Even James Dean looked cooler when he smiled.

Even James Dean looked cooler when he smiled.

People are rated as looking ‘cooler’ when they smile and show their emotions, research finds.

It rubbishes the popular idea that keeping an inexpressive poker face makes you look ‘cool’.

In fact, an inexpressive face makes people look colder, rather than cool.

Dr Caleb Warren, the study’s first author, said:

“We found over and over again that people are perceived to be cooler when they smile compared to when they are inexpressive in print advertisements.

Being inexpressive makes people seem unfriendly or cold rather than cool.”

For the study people were shown a series of adverts in which celebrities were either smiling or not smiling.

It included well-know people, such as James Dean, Emily Didonato and Michael Jordan, alongside less well-known models.

People rated how cool the model seemed when they were smiling versus not smiling.

James Dean, for example, was rated ‘cooler’ in photographs where he was smiling, which surprised the researchers.

James Dean is an icon of cool and often pictured with a sultry, half-frown.

There was only one exception to the general rule that smiling was cool.

That was when mixed martial arts fighters were facing off at a press conference.

Then, it wasn’t cool to smile — better to look tough and serious.

A serious face is more dominant, and looks cooler when the situation demands dominance.

Dr Warren said:

“This inaccurate belief about how to become cool can influence the way we communicate with others, and being inexpressive can hurt relationships.

It also makes it more difficult to understand one another.

For these reasons, being inexpressive isn’t necessarily cool.”

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (Warren et al., 2018).


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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.