Leaders’ smiles linked to culture

March 4, 2016, 12:55 a.m.

According to a recent study by associate professor of psychology Jeanne Tsai ’91, the smiles of leaders from a specific nation reflect the way people desire to feel positive emotions within that culture.

Leaders in European cultures often display bright, toothy smiles, whereas leaders in East Asian cultures are pictured with closed-mouth and serene smiles.

The findings show that the more a nation values high-arousal positive states, such as excitement, the more likely its leaders are to show wider and bigger smiles in their official photos. On the other hand, the more a culture values low-arousal positive states, such as peacefulness, the more likely leaders are to show calm expressions.

Recently published in the American Psychological Association’s journal “Emotion,” these findings may have deep implications for the international and domestic relations between leaders from different cultures.

“[These cultural differences] can really lead to problems, especially in multicultural societies like ours,” Tsai said. “There may be cases where European Americans are misunderstanding Asian Americans who are showing the calm ideal, thinking that they’re not good leaders. In reality they might be excellent leaders, they’re just being judged against a different cultural ideal.”

Culture influences “ideal affect”

Tsai is director of Stanford’s Culture and Emotion Lab, which studies how culture influences emotions. Through past research, the lab has shown that culture influences how people want to feel even more than how they actually feel, a phenomenon called “ideal affect.”

Through comparisons of European American and Hong Kong Chinese Americans, Tsai’s lab has identified patterns in the ideal affect that Europeans and East Asians value. European Americans tend to value high-arousal positive states, whereas people in East Asian cultures value low-arousal positive states more.

In the present study, Tsai and colleagues sought to explain how these cultural values were displayed and transmitted. They hypothesized that values are reflected through forms of media and other widely distributed cultural products. Since leaders are often perceived as embodying cultural ideals, they compared official photos of leaders across different domains.

Cultural ideals reflected in leaders’ smiles

The lab conducted three studies that each examined a different aspect of how cultural ideals are displayed through leaders’ expressions. In the first two studies, the researchers compared the smiles of American and Chinese leaders across three domains: business, government and academia. In each domain, American leaders showed more excited smiles than Chinese leaders.

The third study sought to link leaders’ smiles with the ideal affect of the nation. Researchers compared the expressions of leaders in official photos with a survey conducted eight years earlier on the ideal affect of college students in 10 different nations. The data showed that reported ideal affect was correlated with the expressions of their leaders, suggesting that a nation’s ideal affect is reflected in leaders’ smiles. Additionally, the paper states that because the survey data was collected eight years earlier, this “decreases the likelihood that [the] officials were influencing national levels of ideal affect.”

National indicators such as a nation’s level of democracy, development or wealth did not predict the type of smile a leader would show. Additionally, even the “actual affect” of a culture – how people in that nation actually felt – did not correlate with the expressions of the leaders.

“This convinces us that it’s really the cultural value that is predicting the type of smile that the legislators are showing,” Tsai said. “That makes us conclude that it is these leaders’ photos that are reflecting the cultural ideal.”

Culture and society

Tsai predicts that the transmission of culture is a positive feedback loop. As people are exposed to the official photos of their leaders and other cultural products which reflect the ideal emotions in that culture, they consciously or unconsciously learn which emotions they should display.

“That’s what culture is,” Tsai said. “Culture is created by humans, but then also creates, shapes or produces future human behavior.”


Contact Stephanie Zhang at [email protected].

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