Smile– with your eyes

English: Keli's perfect smile

English: Keli’s perfect smile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was at a training not long ago, and the trainer told a tangential story. When he was in graduate school for psychology, he and a few of his fellow students decided to do a little behaviorist prank. It wasn’t harmful, but it was very interesting. He and three or four of his friends decided that they would smile at the professor as he lectured at the front of the room– but only when he was in a certain corner of the room. This particular professor was one who liked to pace around as he spoke, but by the end of the lecture, he was standing in the corner of the room the pranksters had chosen. This is a reminder that behavior shaping techniques can be used effectively without the knowledge or consent of those being shaped.  This means that each of us has the power to influence others without their knowledge.

I imagine that it was easy for the pranksters to give a genuine smile– though possibly not for the reasons the professor would have named, had he thought about it (which he did not, I’m sure). But you have probably read or heard it said that someone was smiling, but “not with his eyes.” It turns out, if the report in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is correct, that it is impossible to develop purely voluntary control over the muscles around the eyes that are involved in a truly genuine smile. Perhaps this is why smiles are so influential when we interact with each other– people know that that a real smile can’t be faked. I find this quite comforting– in fact, it makes me smile. And if you could see me, I’ m smiling with my eyes, not just my mouth.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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