Is it the end of the road for “Fake it ‘till you make it”?

When was the last time you flashed someone a fake smile? Probably not too long ago. No one wants to be known as the guy that never smiles, so sometimes we fake it. Smiling is considered the universal factor for happiness. With camera phones never more than an arm’s reach away we, have been forced to perfect the fake smile… or have we?

Forced smiles, although common, do not portray the successful, joyous, superstar we hope they do. That’s because we give ourselves, and our phony smiles, more credit than they deserve. Can you spot a fake smile? According to psychologist Richard Wiseman, nearly 60% of adults know the difference so why do we keep it up?

The Origin of the Smile in Photos

We haven’t always smiled in pictures. Think back to those fuzzy portraits from the 1800’s you saw in history class, or nearly every Presidential photo until the mid-1970’s and you’ll see neutral faces and perfectly horizontal lips.

Now this has more to do with the fact that paintings and photos took quite a bit longer than the milliseconds they do today and holding a smile for 3 hours has been proven to make you go slightly crazy.


Since the dawn of the Kodak moment we’ve flashed fake smiles on demand to make ourselves appear happier in photos. I’m sure you remember being taught how to say “CHEESE” as a child to make you smile. How is it that only now are we realizing that we’ve been doing it wrong the whole time?

Just how easy is it to spot a fake smile?

Research conducted on toddlers found that children as young as 3 years old are able to decipher the difference between a fake and real smile.  They have discovered that a smile conveys who is going to be nice to them. As adults, we are able to differentiate a genuine smile from a fake smile to choose social partners who are more cooperative and trustworthy than those we distrust with toothy grin.

The difference between a genuine smile and a fake smile is noticeable even for those that believe they have a convincing fake smile says Eric Jaff, author of A Curious Madness.  A real smile involves the entire face. In particular the cheek and eye muscles, which are very difficult to consciously control. This means that when faking a smile, we often mimic the mouth shape but are unable to recreate the same eye shape and cheek lift that occurs in a real smile.

Real smiles move the muscles in your face up, which results in squeezed eyes, crow’s feet, and visible upper teeth. When faking a smile we move our muscles down which results in displaying the lower set of teeth and leaves our eyes open. This is why you should avoid  “Cheese” for photos as well as it forces the fake smile. Instead, use a word that ends in an “ah” sound like Cola, or Soda which moves the facial muscles to a more natural smiling position.

Can you spot the fake smile?


When is a fake smile the best choice?

Although a fake smile is seen as deceptive, it’s often not the case. We flash fake smiles for lots of reasons, sometimes to cheer ourselves up. A recent study by the Association for Psychological Science, with aptly named title Grin and Bear It, shows a drastic decrease in stress levels by those asked to perform difficult tasks with chopsticks in their mouth. The chopsticks were held in a way that forced the mouth into a smile shape and engaged similar muscles as a natural smile. This study attempts to confirm that smiles, even when it is fake or forced, reduce stress and promote recovery. However, there are still many skeptics to this research.

It’s not only smiling that affects your mood. Interestingly, an inability to frown has been associated with the inability to feel sad. According to a study completed by the University of Cardiff in Wales, women who have used Botox and have paralyzed the facial muscles used for frowning are less likely to feel as depressed. So maybe faking it isn’t so bad?

New studies suggest that over time, choosing a fake smile to cheer yourself up can actually lead to confusion which causes your brain to associate smiling with a negative feeling. To save yourself from the potential cognitive dissonance, keep a neutral face and save smiling for the truly joyous occasions.

What should I do instead?

When you feel like a fake smile might be a good option, consider what your smile might be saying. If you are making a business transaction, a fake smile displays distrust and can cause tension. If you’re unhappy it’s better to use a neutral face than a fake smile.

When meeting new people fake smiles will set off an insincerity alarm in the other person’s head. If you enter a social situation with something on your mind, it is better to address those feelings than try to hide them with a fake smile. Let the people you are meeting know you have just received bad news, or you are having a busy day. This will excuse any non-existent smile.  A fake smile is more obvious than a neutral face. By not throwing on a phony smile you will have greater connections and more honest and trusting business transactions. Plus, you will have an easier time building rapport with new acquaintance.

Smiles are the ultimate way to show you are friendly, caring and open and fortunately today we are smiling more than ever! A study from Berkeley University analyzed yearbook photos from the early 1900’s and has shown that men, on average, are smiling slightly more today than their peak in the 1950’s.  Women however are smiling more today than ever before!


Next time you consider faking a smile to make yourself feel better, think twice. Be careful of the potential consequences and don’t confuse positive and negative feelings. If you’re having a bad day, don’t be afraid to tell someone rather than put on a fake smile. You aren’t fooling anyone, other than yourself.

Want to learn how to make sure your body language is always on point? Click Here to get a quick video on mastering body language.

About the Author

Brandon & Sam currently live in Raleigh, NC and coach motivated professionals how to accelerate their careers, build quality relationships, and unleash their inner-awesome through teaching the secrets of charisma.

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