Yearbook Photo Smiles Predict Marriage Success

Heh, the funny stuff you come across when you’re online in the library before 8 a.m….

April 23, 2009 — The intensity of a person’s smile in a yearbook, or other early photograph, predicts whether or not the individual will later divorce, according to a new study that identified the seemingly improbable link.
The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that smiling behavior in photos, no matter how fleeting, staged or contrived, indicates underlying emotional dispositions that can have direct and indirect consequences throughout the person’s entire life.
In this case, marital success was the focus.
“Simply put: from a snapshot in time, one can predict whether a person will divorce later in life,” lead investigator Matthew Hertenstein told Discovery News.
For the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Motivation & Emotion, Hertenstein, an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University, and his colleagues conducted two experiments. The first involved gathering and analyzing hundreds of yearbook photographs from university graduates, now ranging in age from 21-87, who answered questions to assess their relationship status.
The second was similar, except participants came from a small, Midwestern town and were allowed to submit any early photo of their choice, including school photos, wedding images, and family portraits.
In both experiments, Hertenstein and his team created a “smile intensity score” for each photograph. The scores were primarily based upon observations of two muscle action groups that activate in a certain way when a person is truly smiling. The face’s zygomatic major muscle, for example, causes the cheeks to elevate.
The other muscle group, the orbicularis oculi muscles, operate in a manner that “is difficult to contract voluntarily, thus the ‘fake smiles’ that are often evident in photographs (show) little evidence of crow’s feet to the side of the eye,” Hertenstein explained.
Averaged across the two experiments, he said “the top 10 percent of smilers had a divorce rate of about one in 20, whereas if you were a bottom 10 percent smiler, your chance of divorce was five times more likely!”
While the exact reasons for smiling’s link to divorce remain unclear, the researchers suggest both genetics and the individual’s environment can come into play, with upbeat, stable people conveying a readiness to affiliate, taking better advantage of opportunities and being “more open to social relationships.”
Hertenstein emphasized “how people with positive emotionality are, at least to some degree, architects of their own environments. Thus, they may attract happier people and interpret events more positively.”
He added, “These aspects of positive emotionality may be what’s leading some people to remain married,” with the flip side being that “people who smile little may demonstrate more negative emotionality” and later report “less life happiness over their life spans.”
LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner conducted a similar study at the University of California at Berkeley. They looked solely at Mills College women’s yearbook photos, but tracked how these individuals later fared at ages 21, 27, 43 and 52.
“Over time, women who expressed more positive emotion in their yearbook pictures became more organized, mentally focused and achievement oriented, and less susceptible to repeated and prolonged experiences of negative affect,” Harker and Keltner concluded.
Hertenstein was quick to point out that such studies may “not generalize to many other cultures,” since photo smiling practices in other countries can vary. Also, he admits there’s “a significant amount of variability in the data,” despite the identified patterns, perhaps quelling possible protests from un-divorced graduates recalling their less-than-flattering yearbook pics.
“So just because people can find examples that do not fit the pattern,” he said, “it doesn’t mean that the pattern isn’t evident.”

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