Whites get a black mark for failing to spot fake smiles
Research shows that whites can't tell if a black person's smile is fake or genuine
Whites struggle to tell if blacks’ smiles are genuine or fake, according to new research in Canada.
And the psychologist in charge of the study said that shortcoming could be undermining racial harmony. “Accurate identification of emotion is important to social interaction in general, but it is especially important in interracial settings, which are prone to misinterpretations and misunderstandings,” Justin Friesen, lead author of research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“When emotional identification is impaired, communication is inhibited and can ultimately result in negative, even tragic, outcomes.”
Previous research suggested white people in the US tend to perceive black faces as angrier than comparable white faces. Friesen’s team wanted to see if there were similar biases for positive emotions, such as happiness.
They did six experiments in which 425 participants were shown smiling white or black faces and asked to rate the level of happiness they perceived. Some faces portrayed genuine smiles — known as Duchenne smiles — and some smiles were forced or faked.
“The difference ... is the existence of crows’ feet around the eyes in the Duchenne smile,” said Friesen.
Throughout the experiments, whites found it harder to differentiate between Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles on black faces than on white faces. Black participants had no significant problems, regardless of the colour of the face.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy may be eye contact, Friesen said. Researchers tracked participants’ eye movements and found that whites spent less time looking at the area around the eyes of black faces than white faces.
Friesen suggested the lack of eye contact may have something to do with social status. People who have less social standing or power may feel they must pay more attention to higher-status groups because these group members potentially have more control or influence over them.
“In North American society, where whites are the numerical majority and historically dominant group, they can often, in a sense, get away with being less skilled at reading social cues and emotions on minority group faces,” he said.
“That’s not a luxury available to lower-status or minority groups, whose outcomes often depend on being able to accurately assess social signals, such as emotions, on whites’ faces, even though they belong to a different group.”
The inability to differentiate between real and false smiles could lead to serious misunderstandings and negative repercussions in interracial interactions, Friesen said.
“Normally, if someone says something that’s insensitive or even insulting, if we don’t object explicitly we can still often convey that we are not impressed using nonverbal expressions, like a false smile,” he said.
“If white people are less sensitive to these cues of discomfort on black faces, they might be more likely to continue saying or doing things that are actually insensitive or even prejudicial, creating interpersonal difficulties for everybody involved.”