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Smiles and Frowns Are Contagious for a Reason

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You know what they say: when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you. As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. A study published today in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows that mirroring other people’s facial expressions helps us connect. 

Scientists have known for some time now that our facial expressions can actually change our moods. A 2012 study found that people who held chopsticks in their mouths lengthwise, forcing their faces into fake smiles, felt happier and less stressed than people who maintained neutral expressions. 

We have a lot to gain from connecting with and understanding other humans; at times, that can mean the difference between life and death. As a result, we have evolved mechanisms that make those connections easier.

“Most people are face perception experts,” the authors write. “Faces, especially those expressing emotion, automatically capture our attention, and we extract the emotional meaning of those faces in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds, even subconsciously. Expressions of intense emotion, such as a wide-eyed expression of fear or a toothy grin, may have evolved to be highly distinguishable signals, easily recognizable even from a distance.” 

This study found that humans subconsciously “try on” each other’s expressions in order to understand how others are feeling. The authors reviewed 15 recent journal articles on facial expression mimicking and the role of muscle movements in emotion. There, they found evidence for what they call the sensorimotor simulation model of emotion perception. In plain English, they’re suggesting that we move our facial muscles to mimic the face in front of us, and that this movement triggers the memory of associated emotions, which triggers real emotion in the moment. 

An example: You’re used to frowning when we feel sad or angry. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop with your friend and she is frowning, even a little bit, you might frown too, without even realizing it. As your brain recognizes the frown on your face, it calls up examples of frowning in your own life, and the feelings that went along with them. You begin to feel just a little bummed. Because this is how your friend is feeling, it helps you connect and relate to her. Voila: social success.

The authors note that this skill is dependent on having a clear view of someone else’s face and being able to replicate their expression. Many people with autism avoid making eye contact, which may contribute to their difficulty recognizing others’ emotions. People who have had strokes or experienced Bell’s palsy may have trouble moving their facial muscles, which limits how much they can mimic the faces in front of them. People who were born with facial paralysis, on the other hand, have often developed other ways to tap into that same empathy.

For their next project, the researchers intend to study how humans perceive and identify other people’s facial expressions.

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Why Eating From a Smaller Plate Might Not Be an Effective Dieting Trick 
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It might be time to rewrite the diet books. Israeli psychologists have cast doubt on the widespread belief that eating from smaller plates helps you control food portions and feel fuller, Scientific American reports.

Past studies have shown that this mind trick, called the Delboeuf illusion, influences the amount of food that people eat. In one 2012 study, participants who were given larger bowls ended up eating more soup overall than those given smaller bowls.

However, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel, concluded in a study published in the journal Appetite that the effectiveness of the illusion depends on how empty your stomach is. The team of scientists studied two groups of participants: one that ate three hours before the experiment, and another that ate one hour prior. When participants were shown images of pizzas on serving trays of varying sizes, the group that hadn’t eaten in several hours was more accurate in assessing the size of pizzas. In other words, the hungrier they were, the less likely they were to be fooled by the different trays.

However, both groups were equally tricked by the illusion when they were asked to estimate the size of non-food objects, such as black circles inside of white circles and hubcaps within tires. Researchers say this demonstrates that motivational factors, like appetite, affects how we perceive food. The findings also dovetail with the results of an earlier study, which concluded that overweight people are less likely to fall for the illusion than people of a normal weight.

So go ahead and get a large plate every now and then. At the very least, it may save you a second trip to the buffet table.

[h/t Scientific American]

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