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Research That Might Make You Smile More Often

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Turning that frown upside down can make others consider you younger and thinner, research at the University of Missouri-Kansas City shows. And those perceptions can be important socially — both personally and professionally.

Ph.D. student Norah C. Hass and Trent D. Weston, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2015, have led studies on decision-making based on facial expressions in the lab of Seung-Lark Lim, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. Their findings have been published in prestigious scientific journals including Frontiers in Psychology and most recently, Plos One.

“There hasn’t been much research done on this topic,” Hass said. “So we plan to continue.”

In the Plos One study, published March 30, college-aged participants were asked to sort the emotional expressions of male faces. Results showed that faces at lower age levels were more likely to be categorized as old when they showed a sad facial expression compared to neutral expressions. Mirroring that, happy faces were more often judged as young at higher age levels than neutral faces. Science blogs, including one from Scientific American magazine, are highlighting the research.

In Frontiers in Psychology, published in April 2015, study participants were asked to quickly make body-weight decisions for 960 randomized sad and neutral faces of varying weight levels presented on a computer screen. Their results provided evidence that sad expressions can make faces appear more overweight than they would otherwise be judged.

Weston, who grew up in the Kansas City area and attended Raytown South High School, said he feels fortunate that research he conducted as an undergraduate student was published in such prestigious journals. He plans to pursue a graduate degree with the hope of pursuing a research-related career. Weston received a UMKC Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunity Project grant, which partially funded the research.

Lim’s lab at UMKC focuses on neuroeconomics, how the brain processes emotions in decision making.

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