Spotting A Duchenne Smile: How To Identify A Genuine Smile

By: Julia Thomas

Updated February 05, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Natalie Feinblatt

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Nonverbal communication plays a big role in how we process interactions with others. Researchers tend to disagree on the actual numbers, but it is estimated that 60 to 93% of our communication is nonverbal. Whatever the exact number, it is clear that nonverbal communication significantly impacts how we relate to others.

Smiling is one of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication. A smile could start a relationship or disarm a hostile partner. It provides comfort and is often contagious. Smiling shares our joy and masks hidden agendas. On the surface, we associate smiling with happiness. Research has shown that smiling is actually much more complex. In addition to showing happiness, a smile can also convey embarrassment, self-doubt, deceit, arrogance, and even grief.

By understanding the physiology behind smiling, we can understand when this gesture is genuine and when it is not.

What Is A Duchenne Smile?

Duchenne smiles are the true form of genuine smiles. This smile was named after a French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, a pioneer of the science of electrophysiology. In his research, he discovered genuine smiles incorporated two specific facial muscles:

  • Zygomatic major muscle: This muscle resides around the cheeks and turns the corners of the lips up.
  • Orbicularis oculi muscle: This muscle contracts around the eyes resulting in the distinctive wrinkles often referred to as "crow's feet." It is also responsible for closing the eyelids.

A genuine smile requires both these muscles to work together. Other types of smiles only use the zygomatic major muscle. Duchenne argued only the "sweet emotions of the soul" force the orbicularis oculi to contract.

Duchenne's Research

Duchenne was fascinated with facial expressions and how people communicated using body language. In his research, he catalogued the muscles used for different facial expressions. He studied emotional expression by stimulating various facial muscles with electrical currents. Duchenne published a book in 1862 entitled Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine discussing his findings.

Much of his work was forgotten in modern times until Raul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, psychologists at the University of California at San Francisco in the 1970s, captured the muscular interactions of 3,000 facial expressions using their Facial Action Coding System (FACS). They found that the Duchenne smile was associated with an increase in activity in the brain's left anterior temporal region—an area connected with positive effect—as well as the left parietal region, which is stimulated by verbal activity.

A renewed interest in Duchenne's work showed how positive emotions directly correlated to genuine smiles. Some researchers believe the Duchenne smile is not just a brief spark of emotion, but a clear window into a person's core disposition.

Other Types Of Smiles

The Duchenne smile is just one type of smile. Some researchers suggest there are up to 50 different types of smiles we use to communicate. Smiles convey a variety of messages, including fear, nervousness, deception, sarcasm, arrogance, concern, and more. Aside from the Duchenne smile, here are some other common types:


Tight-Lipped Smile

The tight-lipped smile is one of the most common forms of smiling. It happens when the lips are stretched across the face, but there is very little upward curl at the corners of the mouth. Often no teeth are exposed. This smile is easily faked and used to smile politely. It is not genuine like the Duchenne smile. It could be used when nervous, reserved, uncertain, or even secretive. The tight-lipped smile is common when meeting someone new or communicating with someone you don't particularly like.

The Smug Smile

Similar to the tight lips smile, the smug smile usually has the lips pressed together-though not as tightly- or slightly separated. One corner of the mouth may be raised and the eyes often narrow. People associate the smug smile as a sign of arrogance, superiority, and satisfaction.

The Grin/Smirk

Very similar to the smug smile, but sending a slightly different message, is the grin. It can be used when questioning authority or when an arrogant, self-assured person is under direct verbal attack. Some people smirk when under stress, while others may use this smile to ridicule.

The Uneven Or Half Smile

Like the grin, the uneven or half smile has lips together or slightly apart, but one side of the mouth is usually raised while the other side is level or lower. This smile is often associated with sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also used when conflicting emotions are present.

Seductive Smile

Smiles can effectively show our affection or interest for someone else. Anyone receiving a seductive smile from a potential love interest may feel excitement or mutual interest. This is a slight smile often accompanied by other gestures like direct eye contact then quickly turning away.

Tips For Spotting A Fake Smile

By understanding the muscles involved in genuine smiles, it is much easier to tell when a person's smile is fake or forced. Spotting a fake smile can make us more mindful of another person's nonverbal communications and their true intentions. Tight-lipped smiles, for example, could indicate the person is being polite, feigning interest, or unsure how they feel about you.

Here are three ways to spot a fake smile:

Learn To Spot A Fake Smile From A Heartfelt One.
Click Here To Understand Nonverbal Communication From An Expert.


  • The absence of eye movements: Genuine smiles employ the orbicularis oculi muscle, which causes the eyes to close. If a person is faking a smile, their upper face will not move.
  • The absence of crow's feet: The orbicularis oculi muscle is also responsible for “crow's feet,” or small wrinkles, at the corners of the eyes. “Crow’s feet” are a telltale sign of a genuine smile.
  • Visible bottom teeth: During a genuine smile, the zygomatic major muscle moves upwards. When faking a smile, there is a tendency for this muscle to move outwards, sometimes exposing the bottom teeth.

The Benefits Of Smiling

Genuine smiles are more than a sign of happiness. The benefits of smiling and the laughter that often follows can have a positive effect on your health and well-being. Here are a few of those benefits:

Smiling Releases Endorphins

The act of smiling triggers the release of neurotransmitters called endorphins. These chemicals help lower stress levels and make us feel happier. Endorphins also act as natural painkillers, helping with chronic pain. As you increase your smiling, more endorphins are released into your system, hopefully helping you to feel less tense and happier.

Boosting The Immune System

Smiling can help prevent and fight illnesses. When endorphins are released while smiling, they can reduce levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Lowered cortisol levels have been associated with lower blood pressure, reduced body fat, a stronger immune system, and even a higher libido. Additionally, a study conducted on hospitalized children visited by storytellers and puppeteers showed an increase in immunity-boosting white blood cells an hour after the smile-inducing visit.

Smiles Are Contagious

It's not often you hear that something “contagious” is also good, but smiling is both. When you see someone smile, the area of your brain controlling facial movements is activated, often leading to a reactive smile or grin. Even in tense situations, a smile can be contagious and offer some relief.


Smiling Makes You More Attractive

When you smile, you appear more positive and approachable to others. Genuine smiles can convey self-confidence, a cheerful demeanor, and trustworthiness. Projecting these desirable traits with a genuine smile makes others more willing to engage socially with you. Don't be afraid to show that genuine smile with someone you've wanted to meet.

Therapy Can Boost Your Duchenne Smiles

No matter what emotional or mental health issues might be taking up space in your life, pursuing therapy might be the key to unlocking more frequent and powerful Duchenne smiles on your own face. A recent study found that individuals treated for depression had more instances of Duchenne smiles following treatment than during their intake interviews. Furthermore, another study found that experiencing depression may inhibit one’s ability to recognize Duchenne smiles in others. Seeking support from a mental health professional, like the online therapists available through BetterHelp, can create positive change in your life through more genuine smiles—on your own face and on those around you.

Online therapy is flexible and accessible; because you can arrange your sessions with a therapist around your schedule and lifestyle, you can meet whenever and wherever you’d like, via video chat, phone call, or text message. If you want to see your therapist’s smiling face, they are just a click away. Additionally, online therapy is more affordable than in-person treatment, and that can put a smile on just about anyone’s face. An online therapist will be able to help you understand your own emotions as well as those around you. Consider these reviews from BetterHelp users who have worked with online counselors to make emotional progress.

I loved working with Patricia Chicca! She always has a smile on her face and something to help make you smile too. Her techniques may seem a little odd at first but they really do work when you put in the effort to use them. She is a wonderful woman and you don't have to feel uncomfortable about telling her anything, she was definitely here for me and not for money, and I'm sure she will be the same way to you.

Saying that I am EXTREMELY pleased with Reginald Burgess as my therapist is an understatement. While remaining professional at all times, talking to him feels like talking to a friend. He is attentive, empathetic, humorous, warm ( I could hear him smiling through the phone) and possesses a calm demeanor that quickly puts one at ease. These attributes created an environment that allowed me to feel supported and trusting enough to share my life's challenges, begin doing the internal work necessary to gain control and to heal.     I will be forever grateful for his expertise and  gentle guidance in helping me realize that I CAN live my best life. It is without hesitation that I'd recommend Mr. Burgess as your therapist. You won't regret it.

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