In Our Secret Hearts, We Are All Insufferable Suck-Ups

Scientists studying the "boss effect"—in short, how "social pressure of status and power affects our neurobiology"—have released a new batch of research exploring the ways that perceived social rank dictates our involuntary facial expressions. The idea, in essence, is that when a person who we feel outranks us smiles or grimaces or looks worried or constipated or whatever in our presence, we involuntarily mirror their facial expression. (You know, Andy Bernard-style: "Name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.")

It seems almost like common sense—obviously we suck up to people who have the potential to improve our lives, and obviously the easiest way to maintain a privileged status in a group is to follow the leader and toe the line. But then again, I've had plenty of jobs where my bosses were complete dicks, and I felt zero compulsion or obligation to smile back. And that's because, apparently, my feelings about my own social rank are important too.

Using a technique called facial electromyography, UCSD cognitive neuroscientist Evan Carr tested the reactions among 55 men and women students who were divided into categories of those who felt personally more powerful and those who felt less.

They were shown videos of people they were told held a high-ranking position, like a physician, or a low-ranking job, like a fast-food restaurant worker.

...Whether or not someone unconsciously mimics the facial expressions of another-such as by returning a smile-appeared to depend, in part, on how powerful the mimic feels, and the status of the person they are "mirroring," he found.

The researchers found that when people felt they were powerful themselves, they would rarely return a high-ranking person's smile, automatically suppressing the tendency to mimic an engaging grin, the researchers found...Those who felt more powerless, however, automatically mimicked everyone else's smile, regardless of rank.

So...if I'm reading that correctly, the rank of the person pictured seems to not matter quite so much as the rank of the person responding to the picture? Right? People of self-described "low rank" smile at everyone; people who think they're the bee's knees smile...whenever they feel like it, I guess. But they avoid smiling at fellow high-rankers in some sort of subconscious pissing contest. Interesting.

When I try to apply this model to my own life, I have to say it's pretty spot-on. I mean, I smile at everybody—nice people, anyway—because I'm a nice person. And I'm a deeply noncompetitive person, but who knows, maybe I DO resist submissive facial mirroring with people I think of as competition. But (and maybe I'm interpreting this wrong) I can definitely think of...a different kind of smiling that I do when someone intimidates me.

I'm at a point in my life and career where my confidence and security are comfortably high; I'm rarely intimidated by other people—so I guess you could call that "feeling powerful." It pretty much takes a celebrity or a deeply admired colleague (or, sometimes, just one of those intense people) to give me that high-school-freshman-fish-out-of-water-I'll-do-anything-to-make-you-like-me feeling. I got to meet Conan O'Brien a couple of weeks ago—who happens to be both a celebrity AND one of those fucking intense people—and I instantly felt like a babbling toddler. I turned into this guy. It was goofy.

Anyway, if you need me, I'll be over here obsessing about my own face in every interaction I have for the rest of my life. Thanks for the anxiety, science!

Too Important to Smile Back: The 'Boss Effect' [WSJ]

Image via vonzolomon/Shutterstock.