A sign behind the cash register at my local
McDonalds promises a smile with every order. If the customer does not
receive a smile, he or she is entitled to a complementary order of
hashbrowns. The young woman who took my order displayed her impressive
set of braces all the way back to the rubberbands. And yet, I felt there
was something lacking. How could I be sure I had received the smile I
was entitled to as a valued customer? Something about her smile made me
wonder if she really was happy to take my order. I asked to speak to the
manager. Does McDonald’s have graphs or guidelines as to what
constitutes a smile? What, after all, is a smile? “A smile,” the manager
replied, with an expert grin, “is what makes a customer feel happy.”
While this response did not yield the secret recipe of the McSmile, it
did point to the unusual ability of the smile to reproduce itself.
Smiles are infectious. Smiles are also innate. We are born with the
ability to smile, and smiles are recognized across cultures. “Smile and
the world smiles with you,” as my Granny used to say.
A great deal of research is now being done to determine how exactly
smiles work and why. The reason for most of this research has less to do
with the woman behind the cash register as it does with the cash
register itself. Researchers are incorporating smiles and other facial
expressions into new interfaces. As a result, smiles are being subjected
to rather humorless examination. A recent conference on the facial
expressions in Seoul South Korea included a paper titled, “Multimodal
Coordination of Facial Action, Head Rotation, and Eye Motion during
One of the pioneers of the study of smiles was a graphic artist named
Harvey Ball. It was Ball’s belief that the power of the smile was so
great that even a symbolic representation was enough to cheer people up.
In the early 60s, Ball was assigned to promote the State Mutual Life
Assurance Company’s friendship campaign. Ball first drew a curved line
on a yellow circle. Afraid that disgruntled employees would attempt to
subvert his creation by turning the smile upside down, Ball added two
dots to represent eyes. In less than ten minutes, the phenomenon of the
“smiley face” was born. If Ball himself can be taken as an example, the
smiley face had its desired effect. Even though Ball never saw any of
the profits from his creation, according to his son, he left the world
with no regrets, happy to have this as his legacy.
The representation of smiles has come a long way since then. At the
artificial intelligence lab at MIT, researchers are engaged in
understanding the relationship between facial expressions and emotional
states for the purpose of creating advanced robot interfaces. One robot,
called “Kismet”, is able to reproduce a wide range of emotions using an
interface that includes synthetic eyes, mouth and ears. Studies have
shown that when spoken words are combined with the appropriate facial
expressions, people are twice as likely to understand what is being said
and far more likely to remember it (Massaro 2000). According to Dr.
Cynthia Breazeal of MIT, in order for robots to interact effectively
with people, scientists and designers will need to figure out how
machines display and react to emotion, in addition to how they display
and react to other types of input. The researchers at MIT foresee a time
when robots will perform tasks ranging from cleaning your apartment to
taking your order at a restaurant to babysitting your toddler. And you
can bet that they will do it with a smile.
Once they get the hang of it, there is good reason to believe that
robots will surpass their human counterparts in their ability to smile.
Ironically, the fact that computers do not have to feel the emotions
they display gives them a big advantage. Smiles are not all created
equal. A “true” or zygomatic smile requires the contraction of special
zygomaticus muscles in the face that are directly linked to the cerebral
cortex. The close connection between these muscles and emotion means
that a zygomatic smile is very difficult to fake. Humans are also very
adept at detecting false smiles. We can tell from a young age when
people are “faking it.” If the woman at McDonald’s smile struck me as
insincere, it probably was. She couldn’t help it if giving me my Big Mac
didn’t make her day.
The perfect gleam of a robotic smile may raise the bar for all of us. We
will become used to seeing perfect zygomatic smiles on the faces of
robots and come to expect the same from our human interfaces. Our
friends at McDonalds will be expected to smile more and more sincerely
even as they are inevitably replaced. What effect will this happy
contest have on us?
In the late 1990’s Safeway, the country’s second largest supermarket
chain, began to require employees to smile and greet customers with
direct eye contact. A year later, an article in USA Today titled
“Safeway's Mandatory Smiles Pose Danger, Workers Say" reported that 12
female employees had filed grievances over the mandatory smile policy.
Apparently, their smiles were taken at face value. The women reported
being repeatedly sexually propositioned by their male customers.
According to the “facial feedback hypothesis,” while we may get some
extra attention from our own species, we do not need to fear the dangers
of over-smiling. Smiling itself produces feelings of happiness. The
hypothesis states, “Involuntary facial movements provide sufficient
peripheral information to drive emotional experience.” (Bernstein 2000)
The research to prove this hypothesis seems appropriately comical. In
one study participants were instructed watch cartoons holding a pencil
in their mouths, either between their lips or between their teeth.
People with the pencils in their lips were therefore prevented from
smiling. It turned out that the people with the pencils in their teeth,
who could smile, rated cartoons funnier than those who could not (David
and Palladino 2000).
Thinking about McDonalds, however, made me wonder if happiness is really
what smiling is all about. My suspicions were confirmed when I learned
that the human smile is believed to have evolved from the grimaces of
primates. These grimaces were not evidence of pleasure, but rather of
fear. The submissive grin of the primate sends the message, “I am afraid
and therefore friendly.” The main message I received from the woman
behind the counter at McDonalds was not “Gee, this is a fun place to
work,” but rather, “Gee, I don’t want to get fired so I’ll try to make
you happy.” And, frankly, I was less interested in whether or not she
was having a good day than whether or not she was going to hold the
pickles. What I want from my burger interface—whether human or robot—is
not contentment, but a sense of control. It turns out that the best way
to communicate this complex relationship may be to
smile-like-you’re-faking-it. So, until robots master the subtle art of
deception, perhaps we humans can continue to save face. But can I still
have my hashbrowns, please :)
Bernstein, D. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., Penner, L. A., Roy, E. J., & Wickens, C. D. (2000). Psychology (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Davis, S. F., & Palladino, J. J. (2000). Psychology (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
B. Massaro, D.W. (2000). Perceptual interfaces in human computer interaction. In Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Multimedia and Expo (ICME’00)(Vol.1, pp.563-566). New York, NY.
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