Smiling and divorce, really?

This sounds more than a little suspect to me: according to a paper in the journal Motivation and Emotion, whether you smile or not in photos taken while you were young acts as a good predictor of possible divorce later in life. So what’s suspect about it?

First of all, I don’t see the link. One might argue that smiling means you’re happier, and this helps retaining your marriage, but are smiles on staged photographs (the study used high school yearbook photos) a good indication of happiness? And even if it was, I don’t see how a period of happiness early in life could predict something happening much later in life. Unless you believe that happiness is a constant figure in someone’s life.

Secondly, there’s the methodology of the paper. The researchers conducted two studies, one with college alumni and another randomly sampled. The first sample was a little over 600 people, and they were recruited by self-reporting. About two-thirds of the sample was female, and they were predominately caucasian, with more than 95 % of the sample. The “control” group, of non-alumni, consisted of only 55 people, again mostly caucasians. To analyze the smiles, the researchers used a tool called the Facial Action Coding System to measure the positions of some muscle groups used for smiling, and graded smiling on a scale from 1 to 10. They then analyzed the grades with relation to later life divorces. The result shows that divorcees scored 0.9 worse on the scale on average. One problem here is in the sampling: they are few (especially the “control” group), and skewed. Also, there is the question of whether staged photos actually tell us something about the mental state of the one being photographed. Oh, and the correlation is weak, with the highest pearson’s r being -0.28. All in all, the findings smell like a statistical fluke to me.

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Hertenstein, M., Hansel, C., Butts, A., & Hile, S. (2009). Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6

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7 Responses

  1. Reminds me of the recent study which found that people who were smiling on their facebook photo were more likely to have been tagged by others in their photos. This implies they have a wider social network.

    A wider social network could plausibly mean greater marital stability (or the converse, of course – but at least it’s a plausible mechanism).

  2. I think it’s a little more plausible than it seems. The key is that people have difficulty faking genuine smiles. And when people do make the genuine smile facial expression, even without their own knowledge, they feel happier.

    http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/04/just_smile_youll_feel_better_w_1.php

  3. What was Paul Ekman’s work and similar length of video clips needed to get a good idea about long term prospects?

    Sounds like this is an extension of it.
    Having more fun positive times than bad or negative times is a key.

  4. Well yes, I agree with what you’re saying: it’s both difficult to fake genuine smiles, and smiling for real might very well make you feel better too. However, in this case there’s an issue with the time involved. Where is the link between being genuinely happy at one single given time during your youth and a decision to end a marriage (for whatever reason) some 20 years later? Also, I would like to see a control for spurious factors. For example, how do value judgments enter into the equation?

  5. I can see the small sample size for the control group, but could you explain how the results are skewed? Second, why is there any question about the mental state of subject during photography? How does the answer to that necessarily relate to the findings at all?

    Lastly, if there is a link, I don’t think it would be in the instances of mental states. Honestly, it’s not the mental state of the photographed kid that’s important, it’s whether or not they were able to smile a certain way i.e. “genuinely” or in an otherwise “appropriate” way. A lot of people are able to take good photos, but why would someone not smile right when asked not to smile?

    Could it be correlated with bad social/interactive skills that predispose them towards divorce later in life?

  6. *asked to smile

  7. Well, I might have spoken in haste here, but I believe having 95 % Caucasians in a survey is a little high (the percentage is somewhere just below 80 %)? Anyway, this is not a major issue, of course.

    The point about mental states came because davemunger pointed out that people aren’t able to fake smiles, and thus a genuine smile probably means the person is happy while being photographed.

    It seems to me that the only plausible explanation is in predisposition towards a sunnier personality, which might mean fewer divorces. But any further studies on the issue must establish both the link between being happy at a given time and general level of happiness, AND whether a sunny disposition lasts and predicts divorce much later in life.

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