Many of us are quick to make subconscious assumptions about people when we're in a room full of strangers. The less we know about a person, the more likely we are to jump to conclusions about their behaviors. Research from Georgetown University has found placing a genuine smile on our face can deter strangers from making negative conclusions, including gender bias and ethnic stereotyping.

“Smiling provides cues related to personality that are strong enough to negate the use of information based on gender or race in forming impressions of others,” said the researchers, in a statement.  

The study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, provides evidence that if we smile, we're probably less likely to be judged by our social identity.

Typically, people who have been acknowledged by a stranger with a smile have felt more connected to others immediately after the exchange than those who have been deliberately ignored. Smiling is a social cue that shows acceptance and warmth. Looking at a photograph of someone smiling can also yield the same effect.

The research team, led by Nicole Senft at Georgetown University, recruited over 90 undergraduate students to look at a series of photos of faces, and rate the person's personality based on just a photo. The personalities of eight faces were rated: two Caucasian men, two Caucasian women, two Japanese men and two Japanese women. Half of the students looked at people's faces showing a neutral expression, and the other half looked at the same faces photographed smiling.

Woman smiling Smiling can help lessen gender bias and ethnic stereotypes. Photo courtesy of Pexels/Public Domain

Unsurprisingly, students who rated neutral faces showed signs of gender and ethnic stereotypes. For example, Caucasian men were rated lower on agreeableness than Caucasian women. Meanwhile, Japanese women were rated as less extraverted than their Caucasian counterparts. Contrastingly, smiling led students to rate these faces as belonging to more of an extravert and agreeable person when they smiled than when they wore a neutral expression.

The researchers noted the influence of the faces' gender and ethnicity on the student's' personality ratings either disappeared or were reduced when those faces were smiling. In other words, smiling leveled the playing field.

Previous research has found smiles really do help influence people's impressions of us in photos. Certain jaw lines or smiles really do make people think someone is more controlling or approachable, even if these traits might not be true in real life. Researchers found certain physical features could strongly predict people's’ judgements. For example, large eyes were associated with attractiveness, masculine facial features with social dominance, and a big smile with approachability.

These findings suggest people are more likely to infer our personality from our emotional behavior, rather than relying on stereotypical conclusions based on gender and ethnicity. The participants in the study displayed genuine smiles, so faking smiles may not have the same effect. There isn't a true science to smiling, but showing we’re sincere is essential.

Putting a smile on our face could help break gender bias and ethnic stereotypes, and help people make inferences based on our behaviors, not our looks.

Source: Senft N, Chentsova-Dutton Y, and Patten GA. All smiles perceived equally: Facial expressions trump target characteristics in impression formation. Motivation and Emotion. 2016.