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ScienceShot: Grin and Bear It

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—If someone smiles at you, will you smile back? It depends on how powerful you're feeling. Researchers recruited 55 participants and asked them to write short descriptions of experiences that made them feel either powerful or powerless, such as a time when they had control or authority over someone, or when someone had control or authority over them. The participants then watched film clips of high- or low-status people, such as physicians or fast-food workers, smiling or frowning. During the viewings, the scientists recorded the electrical activity of the volunteers' zygomaticus major, or "smiling muscle," and the corrugator supercilii, or "frowning muscle." All of the participants tended to mimic the frowns of high-status individuals more than those of low-status individuals, the researchers reported here on Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Those who felt powerful tended not to mimic the smiles of high-status people, but returned smiles to people of low status more often. On the other hand, participants who felt powerless returned everybody's smiles. The new findings indicate that powerless people may mimic other's smiles as a strategy to improve their social status.

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