smile illustration

Why U.S. politicians have some of the world’s biggest grins

The more a nation values excitement, the bigger its politicians smile, a new study shows.

For example, in the United States, the smiles of President Barack Obama and other politicians tend to be big and wide. In East Asian countries like China and Taiwan, they are much more modest.

 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Barack Obama
How a political leader smiles in official photos – left, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; right, US President Barack Obama – reflects their particular country’s cultural values related to how people express themselves, says Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai. (Credit: AKIRA/ITOH; Pete Souza)

“Often people think that when they are viewing a candidate’s official photo, they are learning about the candidate’s unique traits,” says Jeanne Tsai, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. “But our findings suggest that they are also learning about the candidate’s culture and the emotions it values.”

This smiling effect may have ramifications in the world of politics, Tsai says. Culturally different emotions and expressions may create misunderstandings between leaders from different nations involved in negotiations or crises.

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Tsai directs the Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford and has previously published research on how Americans tend to embrace positive feelings while Chinese people do not as much; how people from different cultures express sympathy; and how culture factors into why we like or don’t like people.

The new study, published in the journal Emotion, suggests that the size of a political leader’s smile relates to his or her nation’s “ideal affect,”—culturally valued emotions and how people want to feel. Different countries, such as China and the United States, diverge in their ideal affects—or how people want to feel.

“It is significant that although democratic and developed nations were more likely to have leaders who smiled in their photos, it was the nation’s ideal affect that uniquely determined whether leaders’ smiles were more excited or calm,” Tsai says.

For the research, Tsai and colleagues conducted three studies. In one they compared the smiles of top-ranked American and Chinese government leaders, chief executive officers, and university presidents in their official photos. In the second study, they compared the smiles of winning vs. losing political candidates and higher vs. lower ranking chief executive officers and university presidents in the United States, Taiwan, and China.
In both studies, Americans showed more excited smiles than other leaders, regardless of election outcome or ranking.

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The third study involved self-reported measures of ideal affect among college students from 10 different nations. Eight years later, researchers coded the smiles that legislators from those nations showed in their official photos and found that the more nations valued excitement and other high-arousal positive emotional states, the more their leaders showed excited smiles—and the more nations valued calm and other low-arousal positive states, the more their leaders showed calm smiles.

High-arousal positive states are emotions that feel good and energizing; low arousal positive states are emotions that feel good and soothing.

Tsai was surprised the results held across all occupations—beyond politics—and regardless of whether leaders were of higher or lower rank. “I thought they might be more pronounced in occupations that are more visible to the public, like government.”

Tsai also expected the findings might be more pronounced for higher ranked than lower ranked leaders, because higher ranked ones might have more knowledge about how their culture views smiling. But they weren’t—everyone shared the same inclination on smiles.

“I think the fact that the cultural differences emerged regardless of occupation or rank speaks to how pervasive cultural values regarding emotion are.”

Other researchers from Stanford and from the Chinese University of Hong Kong,  Durham University, tthe University of Hamburg, Kyoto University, National Taiwan University, Beijing Normal University, and Université Paris V are coauthors of the study.

Source: Stanford University