Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why So Serious?* An Insider’s Guide to the Study of Smiling and Dominance

The toughest grad students at the University of Illinois
(J. Hepler & N. Segal)
Over the years, one of my favorite things to hear about in research is the initial personal events that inspired researchers to conduct their investigations into human behavior (e.g., Did your neglectful mother lead you to a study of anxious attachment?). In today’s blog post I would like to talk about the inspiration for a study I conducted last year, with my my colleague David Chen, examining what happens when a professional mixed martial artist smiles before a fight with his opponent.

When I think back to the initial kernel of inspiration for this study, two events stick out in my mind—one concerning myself and a near physical confrontation, and the other concerning a professional fighter facing perhaps the most dangerous martial artist of his generation.

First, my own near fisticuffs. Truth be told, I haven’t really been in a fist fight, unless you count the few times that I was on the losing end of a scuffle with my older brother. Once though, during my early years of graduate school at UC Berkeley, I was driving from the university in my brown 1991 Honda accord (it had power windows!) when some poor planning in Downtown Berkeley put me in the wrong lane for a right turn. Being the California driver that I am, I decided it would be completely reasonable for me to sneak past the car on the right and slide in front of him just before the right turn.  

Well as you might imagine, that car’s driver thought that my initial maneuvering indicated unsafe driving. In response, he decided to be even more unsafe—just, you know, to show me how it feels. The driver followed me on the right and then cut me off at high speed before the next red light. Not yet satisfied with his tactics, the driver pulled alongside my car at the next red light. There, he sought to engage me in a heated scolding about the merits of safe driving—his unsafe maneuver just a second ago was exempt from this discussion. I said nothing during this brief exchange. Instead, I turned to him, looked at him directly in his beady little eyes, and smiled. The driver looked at me, a little puzzled at first at my lack of response, then went on his way. I, satisfied that there were no impending fender benders in my immediate future, resolved to plan ahead for any future right turns.

Fast forward two years and I am now watching the Ultimate Fighting Championships and one of the much anticipated fights is that of the matchup between Anderson Silva—universally feared uber destroyer of other mixed martial artists (see here, here, and here)—taking on journeymen and bestsellingauthor, Forrest Griffin. Before the fight, the two men held a brief press conference discussing their matchup. After saying a few terse words the two faced off. Silva stood defiantly in front of Griffin with the typical stoic expression, common among most fighters. Griffin gave a slight smile. The next day when the two fighters officially weighed in for their bought, Griffin smiled again. On the third day, the day of the actual fight, Silva seemed to have woken from the Matrix—delivering one of the most flawless beatings on an opponent that I have ever seen.

When I think back to my own reaction to the driving encounter, I reacted in a way that suggests my desire to avoid potential physical harm. I smiled, and that spontaneous expression defused a potentially aggressive encounter. For Griffin, I imagine he saw Silva in the same way as I saw my driving buddy—a certain hostile and aggressive encounter that could end in violence and even physical injury. He reacted just like I did, he smiled (Unfortunately for Griffin, the smile did not change the fact that both men were contractually obligated to fight each other). Putting these two events together made me think of the smile, in a context of potential aggression, as a sign of reduced dominance.

These anecdotal events, along with a little light reading on primate dominance cues revealed a fairly unified picture relating some forms of smiles in Chimps and humans to displays of reduced dominance. In general, the smile is used as a tool for repairing relationships, not tearing them apart. As such, a smile during a physical confrontation can be an effective strategy for communicating one’s own reduced dominance, lack of aggressive intent, and lower hostility relative to an opponent, and that might have been what Griffin was signaling in his confrontation with Silva. This must be similar to what many of the other fighters who smiled in our study were signaling: In those contests, the smiling fighter tends to lose more, to be punched and kicked more, to be wrestled to the ground more, and even to be knocked out or submitted more than his non-smiling counterpart (If you’d like to read a summary of the research—a better summary than the empirical article itself, I might add—then head on over to Scientific American).

You now have a first person account of the events that led to the empirical study of professional fighters smiling and their performance in mixed martial arts contests. I’m sure many studies are developed out of similar personal experiences. I wonder what sparked your interest in your current job or research project?

* Credit for the title of this blog post goes to R. C. Fraley, who suggested this title after seeing the initial empirical paper.

Kraus, M., & Chen, T. (2013). A winning smile? Smile intensity, physical dominance, and fighter performance. Emotion, 13 (2), 270-279 DOI: 10.1037/a0030745


  1. I know this is just one example that doesn't invalidate the general trend but I remember Pacquio's innocently huge smile at the stand-down before his bout against Bradley. True, Bradley won by decision but anyone who saw the fight, other than the judges, would agree Pacman gave Bradley a proper ass whoopin.

    1. It's important to note that these effects occur on average: there are exceptions.

  2. Didn't Ali like to smile before and DURING all his fights as if toying with his opponents? Like look how fun this is for me, I smile and then I beat the sh*t out of you? That said - when people cut me off then smile, it is even more annoying cause you know you're not getting to them....

  3. "Truth be told, I haven’t really been in a fist fight"

    Come down to room 409 and I'll hook you up. ;-)

    Nice post.

    1. Slap fight in the psychology building when I return. Also, be aware that I'm a kicker!