Does Smiling Really Make You Less Attractive? A Rebuttal to the Well-Known Psychological Study

“To our knowledge this is the first research to demonstrate a negative effect of male happiness displays on male attractiveness.”
– From Happy Guys Finish Last:
The Impact of Emotion Expression on Sexual Attraction

Is smiling attractive? In 2011 a sexual attraction study published by psychologists at the University of British Columbia showed that men were perceived as less sexually attractive when they smile.  You may have heard about this study as it made the rounds on sites like Psychology Today, Business Insider, and countless other news outlets.  The findings have caused men all over to say “That’s it! No more smiling for me!”  But jumping to that conclusion is a HUGE mistake.  If you are a guy looking to attract women, you should absolutely keep smiling.  And I’m going to show you why.

Context Matters

This study was conducted by showing women pictures of a man displaying four different emotions (happiness, pride, shame, and neutral).  The women were asked “How sexually attractive do you find this person?” and rated each picture on a scale of 1-9.  Under these conditions we learned that women find men who display pride, and sometimes even shame, to be more sexually attractive than men displaying happiness.

But how do these findings translate into the real-world?  Are you really better off approaching a woman like a six-year-old who just got yelled at than you are strolling up with a warm smile?

“Hey girl, can I buy you a drink?  Wait… where are you going?”

“Hey girl, can I buy you a drink? Wait… where are you going?”

Absolutely not.  Because context matters.

If a woman is at, say, a bar she’s there to relax, have fun and maybe meet some cool people.  So in that context who is she going to be drawn towards?  The guys who are relaxed, having fun, and seem cool to talk to.  And what’s the easiest way to show you’re that kind of guy?  By smiling!

Sure, perhaps when a woman is looking at an image of a guy with a serious expression he appears more sexually attractive than the smiling guy.  But when a woman is approached by guys who embody these different emotional states, who is she going to be more receptive towards?  The serious, stone-faced guy who, for all she knows, wants to do her harm?  The dude moping about with hunched shoulders and his eyes glued the floor?  Or the warm, friendly, fun guy who comes in with a smile and lifts her mood with his positive energy?

Which person would you rather have approach you at a bar?

Here’s the thing: Whenever two strangers meet there is likely going to be feelings of tension on both sides.  Smiling allows you to relax that tension.  From there you’ll each feel more comfortable opening up and getting to know one another.

Now the Art of Charm may not have a study published on this (yet), but after 7 years watching thousands of guys change the way they approach women the answer is clear.  The guy who brings warm, positive energy is going to blow the serious guy or energy-sucker out of the water.

Body Language vs. Facial Expression

If you read the study you’ll see that the most consistent and statistically significant finding was that pride was hands-down the most attractive emotion for men to display.   Yet according to the researchers the reason pride was seen as sexually attractive didn’t have anything to do with the man’s facial expression.  It was due to his body language.  He was taking up space with his arms up and chest out.  It wasn’t the fact that he wasn’t smiling that made him attractive.  It was how he carried himself from the neck-down.

Women respond to confident body language.  Whoda thunk it?

Women respond to confident body language.  Whoda thunk it?

The most robust takeaway from this study isn’t smiling is unattractive and should be avoided by men.  It’s that confident body language is attractive to women.  Which isn’t exactly breaking news.

Now with that confident body language would it be better to smile or not smile?  If you’re going off the study the answer is: We don’t know, because those combinations were not examined.  And even if the study did have an answer to that question there’s still the issue of how those findings would translate (or don’t) to real-world situations.

Other Factors at Play

For most guys if a woman is sexually attractive (if she looks hot) then he’s going to be willing to sleep with her.  Hell a lot of guys will date or and even marry a girl if she’s physically attractive enough.

So it can be difficult for men to understand that, when a girl decides whether or not to sleep with or date a guy, there are often other factors at play.  Whether or not she’s sexually attracted right off the bat isn’t the be-all end-all of her decision-making process.  She’s going to take other factors into account, such as: Does she feel a connection?  Would she feel okay introducing him to her friends?  Would the sex be any good?  Does she feel safe with him?  Can she trust him?  Does being with him make her feel good? (For a deeper look at the reasons why women have sex, click here)

Sure there are times when a girl just wants to get laid or will go home with a guy solely because she thinks he’s hot.  But it’s important for men to remember that sex and attraction for women can often be a bit more complex than our own thinking of “That person is hot therefore I’m going to try to sleep with them ASAP”.

This is important because even if women do see men showing shame as being more sexually attractive, that doesn’t mean the shameful guy has a better chance of becoming intimate with her.  That tiny bump in sexual attractiveness the brooding guy has (by the way in the study the shameful guy was rated around a 4, and the happy guy a 3, so the gap wasn’t that big) likely won’t be enough to overcome the negative qualities a guy like that brings to the table (which were not examined in this study).

As touched on before, a woman at a bar or coffee shop doesn’t want to deal with some gloomy dude sucking the energy out of the room – even if he is slightly more sexually attractive.  That guy just won’t have a chance in the real world.

But the happy, smiling guy?  The guy who brings energy and boosts her mood?  Yeah, he’ll get a chance.

And that chance is all you need.

Because attraction is a process that you can build gradually.  When first meeting a girl you don’t need to come in guns blazing and ignite tons of sexual attraction within the first five seconds.  All you’ve got to do is spark a little bit of curiosity and interest.  That’s it.  If she’s curious about you, if she’s interested in you, then you’re going to get the chance to keep talking.

And the more you converse the more opportunity you’ll have to connect, steer the conversation in a sexual direction, and eventually set the stage for a deeper relationship.

All while the brooding guy in the corner continues to drink alone, unnoticed.

Is Smiling Attractive in Online Dating Profiles?

This study does address one potentially impactful variable: Do women find smiling attractive in online dating profiles? This study, along with some research conducted by OkCupid (which I’ll get to soon) has led men to believe that smiling has no place in online dating pictures.

But leaping to that conclusion is once again a mistake.

Here’s what OKCupid says about the research they’ve done on whether or not men should smile on their online dating profiles:

“Men’s photos are most effective when they look away from the camera and don’t smile:

Maybe women want a little mystery. What is he looking at?

It’s interesting that while making flirty eye contact is relatively okay for men, flirting away from the camera is the worst thing they, too, can do.”

What the above graph basically says is that guys who don’t smile and look away from the camera in their online dating profile meet almost .2 more women per attempt than guys who smile and look away.  (And about .25 more women than guys who look at the camera in their pictures.)

While there may be something to this finding, the way it’s presented doesn’t actually prove anything.  Here are some of the unanswered questions you may want to think about before taking it as Gospel that you should remove smiling pictures:

  • Is the .2 difference between smiling profiles and non-smiling profiles statistically significant?  Or small enough to be chance? 
  • The non-smiling pictures correlate with more meetups, but does that mean they were the cause of more meetups?  Or is there another factor at play?

Perhaps the type of men who post non-smiling pictures also tend to be the type of men who have some other attractive quality.  Perhaps they simply are more confident.  And even if they changed their pictures to smiling ones, that confidence would still shine through in other aspects of their profile and messages and they’d continue to have success.  (Who knows, maybe these kind of guys could actually have more success if they included smiling pictures).

  • We don’t know if the men who didn’t smile in their main picture had other pictures where they were smiling.  If that were the case it would completely undermine this data. 
  • Finally, we don’t know much about the women who responded to these pictures.  They could be an average representation of the women on OKCupid, or they could not be.  There could be certain type of women drawn to those serious guys skewing the results.  And that type of girl may or may not be the kind of woman you’d want to date.  So if you eliminate your smiling photos you can wind up dating women who aren’t your type, and miss out on women like this who are actively looking for guys who smile in their online dating profiles.

So you may want to refrain from tearing your smiling photos from your online dating profile.  Though that stoic, looking-away picture may help you ignite some sexual attraction and initial interest, adding the smiling picture to the mix will show another important side of you.  It’ll make your personality more dynamic, and show women you’re warm, friendly, and fun to be around.  And it will draw out the kind of women who are attracted to that.

One final note: An Art of Charm alumni has done some extensive testing of what works best for online dating profiles (he’s currently putting it all together in a book that will be made available).  His conclusion – which jives with what a lot of other Art of Charm alumni and coaches have found – is that smiling works.

Tell us about your experiences with smiling vs. not smiling in the comments below. Thanks and stay charming!

Brian M - author of 191 posts on The Art of Charm

Once he realized attraction was something he could learn, Brian spent way too much of his free time studying and practicing everything he could find on the subject. He stumbled across The Art of Charm podcast and eventually signed up for an AoC bootcamp. Excited by the progress he's made in his own life since the program, he decided to start writing for AoC to help other guys do the same. By writing about interpersonal dynamics, he’s finally able to put that psychology degree to good use.

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