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The Subliminal Power of a Smile

Smile at the bartender for a mere 16 milliseconds and chances are he'll juice up your drink with a bit more booze. But be aware that if the pourer shoots you a "microsmile," it's likely to make you thirstier.

Those are among the conclusions of a series of studies by Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who found that people's consumption behaviors can be altered by subliminal messages - that is, messages they aren't aware they're getting.

In two studies, participants were shown a series of photographs of happy, angry or neutral faces. Consciously, the subjects were aware only of seeing the neutral image.

Immediately afterward, they were asked to rate their moods and "interact" with a beverage by drinking what was offered, asking for more or not taking a sip.

Thirty-nine people took part and were allowed to drink as much as they wanted. They didn't know that the amounts they poured and consumed were recorded using an electronic scale. Thirsty participants poured and drank more than twice the amount of the beverage offered after "happy primes" than after angry ones, Winkielman said.

"This is the first demonstration that you can influence consequential, real-world behavior without affecting conscious feeling," he said. "We can change what you do without changing how you feel."

"In our study, we presented facial expressions, smiles or frowns, subliminally, below awareness, by flashing them very quickly on a computer screen," he said. "That is, we use the ability of modern computers to present a picture for only a fraction of a second, one-sixtieth of a second, or 16 milliseconds.

"The real-life equivalent of such presentations would be when someone flashes a smile or a frown at you very quickly," he said. "Or you just see a person's expressions for a brief moment, 'in the corner of one's eye,' as when you're quickly walking by a smiling person, or running away from a thug."

He said that most bartenders and others who come in contact with the public "already know the trick of smiling."

Sign up for free updatesBut "perhaps more interesting, our research suggests that the customer should also smile at the bartender to get him or her to pour you more," he said in an interview.

"There are, of course, limits to what smiles can do. After all, most people are pretty good at figuring out when someone tries to manipulate them. So a fake smile - too long, or simply inappropriate to the situation, might actually hurt more than help."

The studies provide more understanding of "the workings of the fast, automatic, effortless component of the 'emotional brain' - the part of the brain that allows you to notice a brief, encouraging 'flirt' and quickly escape a danger situation ... on a highway, or when encountering a bear in a forest," he said.

Winkielman also said that the studies showed that "people who were exposed to subliminal smiles did not report feeling better, being in a better mood, than people exposed to subliminal frowns. But they behaved in a more positive, approach-oriented fashion. So the faces had more impact on their emotional behavior than their emotional experience."

He said that people seem to be more susceptible to a message, conscious or unconscious, that's relevant to their motivation.

Subliminal messages, he said, are illegal and are fairly short-acting, "so to influence a behavior, you'd have to do something immediately after being exposed to the smile."

That, he said, is why politicians smile "right before they ask you for a campaign donation."

Related Article: How to Use Subliminal Messages on Yourself

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