December 6, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Smiling all the way to the bank

An Irish university has conducted research into smiling.

I’m not joking. It found there are three main categories of smile. A reward smile signals that a person is happy, a dominance smile reinforces superiority and an affiliation smile builds and maintains social bonds.

Taxpayers funded this study and you may think that is no laughing matter. But the good news is that the Irish university was Queen’s, in Belfast, so it was British taxpayers who footed the bill.

Ha! I thought that would put the smile back on your face.

Dr Magdalena Rychlowska, from Queen’s, shared the work – and, presumably, the cost – with four other universities, two in the United States, one in the Netherlands and Cardiff University in Wales.

They concluded: “We react differently to different types of smiles”.

Ah yes, university researchers. Where would we be without them? They have discovered that blonde waitresses get more tips than brunettes (Holy Family University, Philadelphia) and that men pay more attention to women in high heels than those in flat shoes (Université de Bretagne-Sud). That men judge women with blonde hair to be younger and healthier-looking than brunettes (Augsburg University, Minnesota). That drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for you (Harvard) but people who drink red wine at night sleep better than those who drink water (Ben-Gurion University, Tel Aviv).

Scholarly research has found that wet underwear caused a “significant cooling effect” on the skin (joint study by universities in Norway and Denmark) and that a full bottle of beer would do more damage to the human skull than an empty one (University of Bern).

I have yet to see a university study on the defecatory habits of bears in woods or the ability of birds to fly on one wing, but no doubt they are out there somewhere.

They would not be much odder than the recent research by the veterinary department at New York’s Cornell University into the effect on rhinoceroses of hanging them upside down. They wanted to know if the health of the animals would be damaged by transporting them this way, hung from a helicopter.

You’ll be pleased to know that the 12 rhinos tested had no complaints at all.

For her research on smiling, Dr Rychlowsk carried out five studies, with more than 900 participants.

That sounds pretty extensive, but is only in the ha’penny place compared to the 1924 study by Carney Landis , a student at the University of Minnesota who wanted to know if certain experiences, such as pain or shock, always elicited the same facial expressions.

Landi persuaded an assortment of fellow students, teachers and psychology patients to take part in an experiment where they were electrocuted, had fireworks placed under their seats and their hands dipped in a bucket of  frogs. The climax came when he produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to cut off its head with a butcher’s knife.

He concluded that even during the most violent tasks, the most common reaction was to smile.

A similar conclusion was reached by the 19th century French  neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne.

Duchenne was interested in the mechanics of facial expressions, including how the muscles of the face contract to produce a smile. The best way to study this, he decided, was to attach electrodes to a person’s face and jolt their muscles into action.

The procedure was so painful that  Duchenne could not find anyone to assist his research and was only able to experiment on the freshly severed heads of people executed by guillotine. Then one day, by chance, he met a middle-aged man with facial insensitivity and used him as his human guinea pig.

Duchenne went on to discover 60 facial expressions which he depicted in a series of scary-looking photographs. In the most famous of these, the unlucky man has his face contorted into a broad, toothless grin, known to medical history as the Duchenne Smile.

And what does all this prove? Absolutely nothing, except that there is no theory so daft or irrelevant that research can’t be found to substantiate it. And no research so crazy that somebody can’t be found to pay for it.

Unfortunately that somebody is usually us, the taxpayers. And if that doesn’t make you smile, you’ll  just have to grin and bear it.

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