Are Smiling Men Less Sexually Attractive?

July 18, 2012 ( — One wonders sometimes whether bad boys have some kind of union or publicist taking care of their advertising and promotional work. Case in point: a recent University of British Columbia study by Jessica Tracy and Alex Beall seems to support the idea that brooding or taciturn men are more sexually attractive to women – a boost to the idea that sullen leather-jacketed bad boys are sexier than their less menacing counterparts.

The study showed pictures of men and women displaying broad smiles, puffed up chests, lowered heads and averted eyes or neutral emotions to more than a thousand Canadian women and men. The study revealed a sharp difference between how men and women perceived the sexual attractiveness of the subjects shown to them in the pictures. It turns out the women in the study seemed to be turned on more by men who were prideful or ashamed while men preferred women who smile. Study co-author Beall specifies that the study was designed to tease out “carnal” attractiveness specifically and not suitability as a mate or boyfriend.

Bad Boys Don’t Smile
Since the study came out, a host of breathless articles have appeared in serious journals, newspapers, magazines and weblogs claiming the study supports the theory that women find brooding, unsmiling men more sexy than their cheerful smiling counterparts; good news for frowning bad boys if the study is accurate.
After the pictures used in the study came out, however, critics have raised questions about the validity of the study, pointing out that the pictures used in the study appeared to show exaggerated displays of emotion, rather genuine smiles and more subtle physical cues were absent altogether. Psychologist Craig Malkin observes that, “All the postures and expressions (in the study photos) are fake, some of them quite exaggerated. And since humans, as it happens, are notoriously good at detecting false smiles, it’s also possible the women were simply more turned off by simulated happiness.”

The Dynamics of Smiles
Recent studies (Kumhuber, Antony, Manstead and Kappas, 2006) have shown that a smile is not a static social cue, but rather depends on movement like the speed of onset of the smile, the direction of the head tilt and the gender of the observer or the gender of the subject. These dynamic factors greatly influence the perception of the authenticity of the smile by the observer.

The UBC study does not take into account whether or not the observers perceived the smiles or other emotions shown in the pictures as genuine or not. A perception could have skewed the results in favor of pictures that looked more “real.”

A Picture is Not a Person
Malkin further argues that the problem might not be adequately controlled for in these kinds of studies by asking participants to rate the genuineness of the photos. After all, a “picture is not a person” Malkin points out. There are a wide range of subtle auditory, visual, tactile and even olfactory cues that come into play in how both women and men respond sexually to another person.

Unfortunately there has been little previous systematic study on how the distinct emotional displays influence sexual attractiveness. While it’s tempting to generalize from this early study of the subject that the results support the mythology that female attraction to unsmiling bad boys, guys probably shouldn’t abandon smiling as a tool to attract women just yet. The jury is by no means in on the subject.

Tracy, Jessica L. and Beall Alex T. (2011). Happy Guys Finish Last: The Impact of Emotion Expressions on Sexual Attraction, University of British Columbia; American Psychological Association

Krumhuber, E., Manstead, A., & Kappas, A. (2007). Temporal Aspects of Facial Displays in Person and Expression Perception: The Effects of Smile Dynamics, Head-tilt, and Gender. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 31(1), 39-56.

Christakis, Nicholas A and Fowler, James H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives; Little Brown and Company, New York, NY; September 2009

Malkin, Craig. (2011). Are Happy Guys A Turn-Off? Don’t stop smiling yet; Psychology Today, Romance Redux, May 26, 2011


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