Smiles as Multipurpose Social Signals

Trends Cogn Sci. 2017 Nov;21(11):864-877. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.08.007. Epub 2017 Sep 27.


The human smile is highly variable in both its form and the social contexts in which it is displayed. A social-functional account identifies three distinct smile expressions defined in terms of their effects on the perceiver: reward smiles reinforce desired behavior; affiliation smiles invite and maintain social bonds; and dominance smiles manage hierarchical relationships. Mathematical modeling uncovers the appearance of the smiles, and both human and Bayesian classifiers validate these distinctions. New findings link laughter to reward, affiliation, and dominance, and research suggests that these functions of smiles are recognized across cultures. Taken together, this evidence suggests that the smile can be productively investigated according to how it assists the smiler in meeting the challenges and opportunities inherent in human social living.

Keywords: behavioral reinforcement; facial expression; social bonding; social functionalism; social hierarchies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Culture
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Smiling*
  • Social Behavior*