May 3, 2016

Is the Fountain of Youth In Your Lips?

by Bonnie Eissner


Much of the beauty industry is built on helping consumers alter age perceptions. Makeup for teenage girls makes them look more mature. For those of us beyond our teens and 20s, it’s a race to look younger—to erase wrinkles and firm up sagging skin. What if you could change how old you look without spending a dime? Fan Liu, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Robert B. Willumstad School of Business, and her collaborators, Ze Wang and Xin He at the University of Central Florida, have found a technique to do just that: Smile.

Dr. Liu and her colleagues specialize in consumer psychology—an area at the nexus of psychology and business that focuses on consumer behavior. Dr. Liu is interested in how we make judgments based on facial expressions and other nonverbal cues—an apt topic given our selfie culture.

Dr. Liu explained that she and her colleagues began to think about what factors drive others to perceive us as young or old. They found that “the literature on age perception usually refers to sagging, wrinkling or the change to one’s skin texture.” Dr. Liu added, “There’s not much we can do about those without spending a lot of money, so we began thinking about how a single smile can change that perception.”

They took photographs of models with a neutral expression and a maximal smile. Using morphing software, they altered the photos to create images with six levels of smile intensity. Once the photos were properly coded, they invited participants—about 1,200 in four studies—to estimate the person’s age. 

Using statistical analyses, Dr. Liu said that she and her colleagues consistently found that by “wearing a maximal smile compared with a neutral smile, you look three years younger.”

Why? They linked the phenomenon to muscle configuration. When you smile, your face becomes rounder, your cheeks move up and your chin becomes less prominent. In other words, your face becomes more babyish. “And babyishness is always linked with this perception of youthfulness,” Dr. Liu said.

The findings have implications beyond Instagram. Depending on how you want to be perceived in the marketplace—seasoned executive or nimble new hire—you can decide how far to turn up your smile.

This article was published in the 2016 issue of Erudition magazine. 

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