Women tend to fake smiles more than men do and are more aware of these smiles, finds research by Washington and Lee University undergraduate psychology student Steven Martinenza and assistant psychology professor Julie Woodzicka, PhD.

Their 10-week study this summer was part of the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship Program run by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). The program provides stipends of $3,000 to $3,500 from various sponsors and $500 for supplies and materials.

Undergraduate students in science, mathematics and engineering are eligible for the fellowships so they can pursue research with a faculty mentor.

Woodzicka and Martinenza are the first to participate in a CUR fellowship specifically for psychology through funding from the American Psychological Foundation.

"It was such an amazing opportunity and comprehensive experience working in a research lab," says Martinenza, a senior in the undergraduate psychology program at Washington and Lee. "I was highly involved at every step along the way."

Martinenza helped code nonverbal data from videos of people's smiles as well as conduct mock interviews, develop the study's methodology and evaluate the data.

Such research experiences help undergraduates gain important publication, research and presentation experiences, says Maureen McCarthy, PhD, APA's associate executive director of precollege and undergraduate programs in psychology. "It underscores our commitment to science in undergraduate curriculum," McCarthy explains.

Judging a smile

In their research, Woodzicka and Martinenza conducted mock job interviews with 101 college students, videotaping and coding the duration and intensity of participants' smiles using a facial-action coding system that relies on a combination of mouth and eye movements to determine fake smiles from genuine ones. They hoped to find out why people fake smiles and gauge their awareness of it.

So far, based on preliminary results, Woodzicka and Martinenza find women tend to fake smiles more than men do and are more aware of these inclinations.

The reason? "Women smile more to appease," Woodzicka posits. "When they become uncomfortable, they put on a smile to show that they will do whatever they need to get through the situation."

For example, they were likely to report reasons for a fake smile such as they were trying to please the interviewer, according to their preliminary findings. Men, however, tended to be less other-focused when smiling, reporting that they "wanted to appear like a nice person," or that they were amused at something that was said.

A learning experience

Woodzicka, who studies why people fake smiles in uncomfortable or problematic situations--such as ones involving discrimination--says she asked Martinenza to apply for the CUR fellowship since the two share research interests in discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping.

While Martinenza participated in research projects before in his undergraduate courses, he says the CUR fellowship enabled him to delve more into the research process--from developing methodology to interpreting results.

"My summer experience permitted me the chance to focus solely on psychological research without the concurrent classes or extracurriculars that I had to consider during my work in the academic year," Martinenza says. "Making psychology my 'job' over the summer really gave me a positive insight into what lies ahead in graduate school."

He and Woodzicka hope to eventually publish and present the study's findings.

Further Reading

APF will support another CUR fellowship in 2005. Applications and eligibility requirements are at
www.cur.org/UGSF.html. The deadline is Nov. 26.