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Go Ahead and Smile

Portrait of Dale Jorgensen

Smile though your heart is aching, Nat Cole once sang. If you smile through your fear and sorrow, smile and maybe tomorrow, you’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

Cole had it right, says Psychology’s Dale Jorgenson, who joined the university 35 years ago. Jorgenson is an expert in the effects of smiling with special attention to its affective, interpersonal and social influences.

“One smile isn’t going to make much of a difference all by itself,” said Jorgenson. “It takes repeated exposure. For instance, in my research, I’ve shown people photos of smiling people from different ethnic groups. Attitudes become more positive with many exposures to smiling faces. That is true regardless of whom they’re looking at. Whatever the initial attitudes, in the end, when they’ve seen members of any group smile at them a lot, they like them a lot more than if they only got one or two smiles or none at all.”

A continuing aspect of his work has been the investigation of the effects of interethnic smiling on relations between ethnic groups. The objective of this research on smiling is, first of all, to validate the use of the reciprocation of initiated smiles as an attitudinal index which then can be used to assess intergroup attitudes. The second objective of this research is to see if exposure to smiles by members of different ethnic groups actually may change intergroup attitudes. He has collected data from approximately 250,000 subjects in southern California since just after the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and presented the results at a convention of the Western Psychological Association. His evidence suggests that whether or not someone returns a smile to a member of a different ethnic group does reflect their attitude toward that group and that being the recipient of enough smiles by members of other groups can change intergroup attitudes. He also has found that being frowned at has the opposite effect.

“If I show pictures of people of different ethnic groups and they’re frowning, then the more frequently people are shown pictures of frowning faces, then the less they like that group,” he said. “It is about achieving a critical mass of experiences.”

Facial expressions, throughout history, have been one of our primary means of communication of our feelings about other people. “The fact we recognize facial expressions almost universally as implying certain things offers evidence about how useful they are,” he said. “We are happy to see somebody smile but our interest fundamentally is in knowing whether they are happy with us. As long as we have to make decisions about whether people are friends or foes, we need a way to do it quickly and easily and from a distance. Facial expressions represent a quick and simple way of knowing these things.”

Jorgenson received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 1966 and his Ph.D. in social/organizational psychology in 1970, both from the University of Minnesota.

He has found that smiling at others may benefit the smiler in that, when you smile at people, they are more likely to smile at you. The more often this happens, the better the mood of the smiler. When reviewing self-reports handed in by students assisting with his smile research, he correlated the frequency of returned smiles with how favorable their moods were.

“The correlation between the number of smiles they reported receiving in return and their mood was extremely high (80 percent or better),” he said. “The more they got smiled at in return, the more favorable their mood was.”

And yes, knowing so much about the effects of smiling has had an effect on his own behavior.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit and how I’ve been affected by what I’ve found,” he said. “It has reinforced one of my guiding principles that we really are in charge of our destinies. We do have influence over the things that happen to us by virtue of our actions. Smiling is a case in which a simple act can have profound affects on the kinds of experiences we have with other people and how they treat us.”