Models and Kanye West, take note.
Contrary to popular belief, not smiling doesn’t actually make you look cooler, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The research, which had participants judge the coolness of models in print ads, found that “emotionally inexpressive” people didn’t seem cool, but cold.
“There’s this belief that the way people become cool is by being inexpressive,” lead study author Caleb Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, told Moneyish. By way of example, he cites West, who told HuffPost in 2015 that he doesn’t smile in photos because “it just wouldn’t look as cool.”
“What I’m trying to communicate with this paper is that’s often wrong,” Warren said. “Most of the time, being inexpressive makes people seem less cool. They’d be better off by smiling.”
To test whether people seem more cool when they don’t show emotion versus when they smile, Warren and his co-authors showed study participants clothing brand print ads in which the model — among them famous faces like Michael Jordan and James Dean — was either smiling or inexpressive. Participants perceived models to be cooler when they smiled, the authors found, “because being inexpressive makes the endorsers seem less warm.”
An additional experiment — depicting an MMA fighter interacting with his opponent before a fight — found that highly competitive interactions were an exception. In a competitive context, being inexpressive was viewed as a sign of dominance and therefore seen as cooler. The fighter interacting with fans in a more cooperative setting, on the other hand, yielded a similar result as the print ad study.
“The thought experiment that I like to use is, if you’re at the dinner table, being inexpressive isn’t cool,” Warren said. “But if you’re at the poker table, it is.”
So what does it mean to be “cool”? To Warren, “it’s a positive and subjective trait that we perceive in people who we see as being autonomous in an appropriate way,” he said. “What that means is they are free to follow their own course and they do that without seeming like a jerk or a nuisance.” Driving on the wrong side of the road, Warren said, might be seen as rebellious — but it wouldn’t be an “appropriate” way of showing autonomy.
The research has practical implications for fashion advertising, Warren said. “If brands want to be seen as cool, then they should have endorsers in their ads smile more as opposed to being inexpressive,” he said. “It’s not what most fashion advertisements do — most fashion advertisements have inexpressive endorsers, inexpressive models.”
The same goes for the average person posting selfies to Instagram or Snapchat. “Generally, you’re better off smiling than being inexpressive — which is, again, the opposite of what Kanye West said,” Warren said. “Probably, Kanye would look cooler if he smiled. And if he talked less, but that’s a different issue.”
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