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Evidence for Distinct Facial Signals of Reward, Affiliation, and Dominance from Both Perception and Production Tasks

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A Correction to this article was published on 23 March 2021

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Smiles are nonverbal signals that convey social information and influence the social behavior of recipients, but the precise form and social function of a smile can be variable. In previous work, we have proposed that there are at least three physically distinct types of smiles associated with specific social functions: reward smiles signal positive affect and reinforce desired behavior, affiliation smiles signal non-threat and promote peaceful social interactions, dominance smiles signal feelings of superiority and are used to negotiate status hierarchies. The present work advances the science of the smile by addressing a number of questions that directly arise from this smile typology. What do perceivers think when they see each type of smile (study 1)? How do perceivers behave in response to each type of smile (study 2)? Do people produce three physically distinct smiles in response to contexts related to each of the three social functions of smiles (study 3)? We then use an online machine learning platform to uncover the labels that lay people use to conceptualize the smile of affiliation, which is a smile that serves its social function but lacks a corresponding lay concept. Taken together, the present findings support the conclusion that reward, affiliation, and dominance smiles are distinct signals with specific social functions. These findings challenge the traditional assumption that smiles merely convey whether and to what extent a smiler is happy and demonstrate the utility of a social–functional approach to the study of facial expression.

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  1. We also note that a lay concept for the dominance smile exists in the concept of a “smirk” which is defined as a smug or condescending smile (Merriam-Webster, 2020).


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Authors and Affiliations



JDM and PMN developed the concept of the study. All authors contributed to the study design. Data collection and analysis was performed by JDM. JDM drafted the manuscript, and all authors provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final manuscript for submission.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paula M. Niedenthal.

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This work was supported by the NIH (grant number T32MH018931-26 to JDM), the US–Israeli BSF (grant number 2013205 to PMN), and the NSF (grant number 1355397 to PMN). Further support for this research was provided by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


Sources of financial support had no influence over the design, analysis, interpretation, or choice of submission outlet for this research.

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Data are publicly available at

Ethical Approval

All studies reported in this manuscript underwent ethical review and were approved by the UW-Madison IRB.

Informed Consent

All participants provided informed consent prior to participation.

Additional information

Handling editor: Jonathan Gratch

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Martin, J.D., Wood, A., Cox, W.T.L. et al. Evidence for Distinct Facial Signals of Reward, Affiliation, and Dominance from Both Perception and Production Tasks. Affec Sci 2, 14–30 (2021).

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