Why does bad news make some people smile?

UC professor says mismatch between feelings, expressions is common

For some people, sad news draws an uncomfortable smile to their face.

Oriana Aragon, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing in the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business, joined the “Every Little Thing” podcast to explain this phenomenon of feelings not matching expressions, which is called a dimorphous expression of emotion.

Oriana Aragon

Oriana Aragon, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati Carl H. Lindner College of Business

In a survey, 43.7% of people reported they smile when they’re very sad, Aragon said. The actual percentage could be higher, she said, as many people might not realize what they’re doing.

“This is normal,” she said. “A lot of people report that they do this uncontrollably. It’s more social norms that say, ‘Well, you’re supposed to frown or have a sad face when you’re not feeling well.’”

Smiling during sad moments is just one example of dimorphous expressions of emotion. The mismatch of feelings and expressions also include cute aggression, such as the desire to pinch a baby or squeeze a puppy, and tears of joy.

While a grin in a sad or uncomfortable situation might seem out of place, Aragon said, there might be a reasonable explanation for why it happens.

“It could be that that smile during that negative scenario signals to others that you’re open for them to approach you, maybe for comfort, maybe to distract you from whatever sadness is going on for you,” she said.

See more from the “Every Little Thing” podcast.

Featured image at top courtesy of Unsplash.

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