Fake it ’til you make it

Like most of us, you’ve probably made a wrong turn in your local pharmacy and hiked switchbacks through aisles stocked with makeup, shapewear, hair remover, hair regrowth, self-tanner, tooth bleach, and many other “personal care” item to suit the needs of undercover operatives, circus clowns and clerical assistants, alike. The market is flooded with products encouraging us to become master painters: our bodies and CVS hauls are the media for our artfully crafted trompe l’oeil. Though “personal care” is associated with cleanliness and hygiene, we balk at the concept of being “fake” or “faking it”.  But, “fake” isn’t always bad, especially when it allows us to erase wrinkles and undereye circles…or when faking a smile could reduce the risk of heart disease (yes, that’s right).  Recent reports suggest that people who are particularly gifted in relaying positive emotions, without necessarily feeling them, may actually be healthier (Tuck et al. 2017).

According to Tuck and colleagues, the ability to relay positive emotions by smiling may recruit social resources, thereby encouraging recovery from a stressful state (2017).  In other words, people who smile more readily are going to receive more help from others – if someone can use this tool, even when they’re stressed and unhappy, they will increase the potential that outsiders will help them to reduce or eliminate the immediate, threatening situation. This hypothesis gains momentum when we consider studies in monkeys. These non-human primates form social hierarchies comprised of “top dogs”, monkeys in the middle, and low-ranking, bottom of the totem pole monkeys.  The highest-ranking, “top dog” monkeys have access to the majority of the social resources, and these are also the monkeys with the lowest levels of plaque buildup in their blood vessels (Sapolsky 2004, p. 44-45). Across species, it seems that an individual’s ability to recruit social resources may inversely correlate with plaque buildup, one of the bests predictors of cardiovascular disease.  This begs the question – does the opposite of smiling and relaying happy, inviting sentiments also predict the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Is it possible that hostile people are more at risk for heart disease? This hypothesis is well-grounded in physiology; our bodies respond to stressful situations by activating the sympathetic nervous system, engaging the “fight or flight” response, while concurrently suppressing the parasympathetic system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” processes (Cannon 1929).  It makes sense to suspect that the tendency or urge to fight might be correlated with an overactive sympathetic nervous system.  Indeed, researchers running a prospective population study in Nova Scotia showed that hostility was tied to a 2-fold increase in the occurrence of ischemic heart disease (Newman et al. 2011, Whooley and Wang 2011).  Though these researchers didn’t evaluate hostile individuals for their ability to fake a smile, it seems possible that people who are generally angrier and more aggressive are also less likely to be able to force a toothy grin on command.  So, while faking a beaming smile may be a tactic for dodging heart disease in people who are often smiling, a snarky smirk from someone with a more hostile personality may not have the same, advantageous effect.  Though, who knows, we may soon be trudging through pharmacy aisles populated by grins, beams, and smiles, squeezed between self-tanner and hair dye.

Cannon, W. (1929) Organization for physiological homeostasis. Physiological Reviews, 7(3): 399-431.

Newman, JD, Davidson, KW, Shaffer, JA, Schwartz, JE, Chaplin, W, Kirkland, S, Shimbo, D. (2011) Observed hostility and the risk of incident ischemic heart disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology,  58(12): 1222-28.

Tuck, NL, Adams, KS, Pressman, SD, Consedine, NS. (2017) Greater ability to express positive emotion is associated with lower projected cardiovascular disease risk. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, DOI: 10.1007/s10865-017-9852-0

Sapolsky, R.M. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Whooley, MA, Wong, J. (2011) Editorial comment: hostility and cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 58(12): 1229-30.

2 thoughts on “Fake it ’til you make it

  1. I really enjoyed your interpretation of Tuck et al. (2017) results, Emily! I agree that the ability to deliberately change facial expression is important when interpreted in the context of how and what facial expressions mean during human interactions. I also agree that ability to express positive emotion may elicit more help from others as it may facilitate social closeness and signal willingness to cooperate. This ability to produce positive expression could be useful in stressful situations when acquiring help from others could our reduce stress. For example, asking for help with your work load, or a shoulder to cry on. In this sense, I wonder whether those who were more skilled at expressing positive emotion would also be more likely to seek help from others when the situation allows?

  2. Interesting to think about potential matches and mismatches between what we express outwardly and what we’re experiencing inwardly. I’d be curious to know whether level of mismatch predicts CVD, and whether that depends on whether we’re talking negative or positive emotional behaviors and feelings.

    P.S. I can easily picture that CVS and it kinda creeps me out to think about purchasing smiles. 😀

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