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Actually, It’s Men Who Need to Smile More

New research continues to show that male faces are more likely than women’s to be associated with anger. So, come on pretty fella, can you give me a smile?

The sun is sort of shining, and the pandemic is sort of over (or at least we’re acting like it), which means it’s only a matter of weeks before some asshole on the street tells me I’d look prettier if I smiled. But this year, instead of pearly whites and expletives, these dudes are getting a mouthful of science, because new research confirms what I’ve suspected all along: Men are the ones who need to smile more. 

The research specifically builds on past data on how men’s faces are more likely to be associated with anger. “There is earlier research showing that female faces are associated with happiness or sadness, and male faces with anger,” Sebastian Korb, lead author of the study, tells me. 

Korb’s work adds to the validity of these past findings by testing vocal biases as well, across three separate experiments and a total of 256 participants, including men and women. Subjects observed 121 avatar faces and 121 human voices, created by computers and statistical modeling to illustrate the scale of emotional expression from happy to angry, as well as a similar scale of male to female

Source: American Psychological Association, journal Emotions, March 2022

The results revealed that the perception of anger had a greater influence on participants’ likelihood of guessing that the faces and avatars were men, as opposed to the perception that they were male influencing emotional predictions. “We found that the implicit effect of emotion was larger than the implicit effect of sex,” Korb explains, noting that wasn’t surprising, “but was important to show.”

Korb and his team believe this bias is a result of an unconscious activation of the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped, emotional center of the brain that helps us detect threats. Their study and past research indicate that these biases are strongest in situations where there is more ambiguity, suggesting that there might be an evolutionary advantage to assuming that all angry faces are male. When you do that, you’re most likely to survive because you’re less likely to underestimate them as an angry Karen that you should just ignore. 

The takeaways for men are all that I’ve ever wanted. “Sending clear, emotional signals such as smiling instead of keeping a neutral face, and speaking in a friendly tone of voice, should overrule the bias,” Korb says, adding that men might also “misjudge a woman’s expression as being friendlier than it truly is.”

Oddly enough, this was news that made me smile for the first time in days.