The right smile could boost trust—and giving

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People are willing to offer more money to others who display similar emotional expressions, research finds. Those expressions are even more powerful factors than race or sex.

Since culture drives our tendency to value similar emotions in others—a phenomenon dubbed “ideal affect match”—the research clarifies a new way that culture can influence giving and potentially provide organizations insights into their philanthropic efforts.

Previous research from Jeanne Tsai, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, has examined the relationship between culture and emotion with a focus on European Americans and East Asians.

That research suggests that while European Americans typically want to feel states of excitement (high-arousal positive states), Asians instead prefer to feel states of calmness (low-arousal positive states). Thus, people tended to like others who showed the emotional states that they themselves wished to feel—”ideal affect match.”

That led Tsai and coauthors to wonder whether ideal affect match could influence not only liking, but also willingness to allocate actual money to a stranger.

The ‘dictator game’

In the first study, the researchers examined groups of European-American and Korean college students. After measuring their actual affect (how people feel) and ideal affect (how they want to feel), the researchers had subjects play a series of Dictator Games—a game in which one person (the “dictator”) decides whether to distribute their money with other players (potential recipients).

While subjects were always assigned to play the dictator, different potential recipients were depicted with computer-generated avatars that varied in terms of their emotional expression, race, and sex. Afterwards, subjects rated how much they trusted each of the potential recipients they had encountered.

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The researchers found that while European Americans gave more to the recipients whose expressions conveyed excitement (i.e., open, toothy smiles), Korean students gave more to recipients whose expressions conveyed calm (i.e., closed smiles). Further, European Americans rated excited recipients as more trustworthy, but Koreans rated calm recipients as more trustworthy.

However, common race and sex had little effect on sharing or inferred trust.

“These findings suggest that emotional expression—and whether or not it matches people’s ideal affect—may play a more powerful role in resource sharing than even race or sex,” says Tsai, director of Stanford’s Culture and Emotion Lab.

Who’s trustworthy?

So what about ideal affect match could motivate people to share with others? Was it the way that a matching stranger made them feel or the belief that they shared values? To find out, the researchers ran a second study in which European-Americans and Koreans played repeated Dictator Games—this time, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). Afterwards, subjects again rated potential recipients’ trustworthiness and other characteristics, including friendliness and intelligence.

When subjects saw faces whose expressions matched their ideal affect, the scans revealed decreased activity in the brain’s right temporo-parietal junction, which is associated with perceiving that others hold different beliefs, according to Tsai. One interpretation of this decreased activity is that subjects assumed the recipients shared their values. This interpretation aligns with the fact that subjects tended to trust and share more with recipients whose ideal affect matched their own.

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Tsai says that, traditionally, it has been difficult for researchers to identify which emotional expressions generate trust. This may be because they vary by culture. These findings help explain why people from different cultures might trust people with different emotional expressions.

“Together, these data suggest that part of the power of ideal affect match is that it sends an implicit signal that someone else shares our beliefs and values, which in turn makes them more trustworthy, and promotes giving,” Tsai says.

Overcoming boundaries

The study, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, challenges established research notions about in-group identity, or the cues that people use to identify themselves as belonging to a group. The findings specifically suggest that malleable cues related to mutual emotional values can overpower more static cues like sex and race.

The results imply that when dealing with other cultures, people may overcome traditional categories by understanding and expressing shared emotional values. Since emotional expressions are easier to modify, the findings suggest more flexible ways of enhancing trust and sharing across cultures.

The Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences; the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging; Kwanjeong Educational Foundation; and the National Science Foundation supported the work.

Source: Stanford University