Faking It

Best Wishes, Happiness

With the U.S. Republican primaries now well under way, voters and news media are getting really worked up about which contender is most "genuine". Genuine, in the sense of not fake. Fakery, it would seem, is a symptom of psychopathy, and hours of speculative online videos have been devoted to exposing its many forms (particularly fake smiles, fake laughs, and fake friendliness): for the most damning, see New York Magazine's ruthless 33-second loop, "Mitt Romney's Nervous, Human-Like Laughter".

It's not just political. Within the Union, New Yorkers cast a skeptical eye upon Southern friendliness. Across the Atlantic, Europeans sniff at  Americans in general for their implausible enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, don't we all expect (or at least, hope for) "service with a smile" ? In China and Japan, forward-thinkers have even developed interactive gadgets to help novices fake their feelings. The Electro Smile is a sort of electrified bear trap that Japanese children wear on their faces to spark up their smiles.  Employees at the Shinagawa Train Station in Japan practice showing their teeth with an interactive grin-o-meter, which preps cheeks for the day with practical advice like, “Just a bit more!”. And in 2008, China brought fakery back to basics by requiring Beijing Olympic Games hostesses to clench chopsticks between their teeth, which trains smile muscles to pull up and out for extra friendliness.

So why do we revile the insincere, and then insist that service-workers and children glow with affected warmth and friendliness? 

Here's how it works: Studies suggest that simply seeing a smile -whether faked or genuine- automatically lifts your mood, sending warm waves of serotonin and oxytocin coursing through your brain. And in 1988, German researchers found that faking a smile, (for example, by holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth) makes the smiler laugh longer and harder at cartoons. So even if, in theory, fakery creeps people out, the practical truth is that a little artifice makes everyone feel better.

It's an effect that puts smiling on a whole spectrum of neurochemically gratifying aesthetic performances. The joy you get from a glimpse of an attractive stranger's pearly whites is similar to (but slightly more intense than) the thrill of watching a priest perform exotic rites. It's a little less less stirring than anything you might download from from the Internet. But just like religion (I'm going to be saved) and pornography (This could happen to me), smiles suggest something about viewer (Seeing me made that person smile). We like to feel involved. If the smile isn't credible, though, we probably aren't involved. And that hurts. 


Photo Credit: Shanghaiist 

Video Credit: Talking Points