Smile (For Credibility and Affect)


Smile (For Credibility and Affect)

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By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm

smileYour face is probably blank as you read this. So just as an experiment, right now, smile. Now, even if your smile is forced, goofy, or pasted on, hold that smile for at least 20 seconds or so. If you’re like most, you should feel your mood lifting almost immediately. That is exactly what researchers find as well: Smiling causes a reduction in stress and a momentary feeling of genuine happiness (Kraft & Pressman, 2011). Even when research participants don’t know they are “smiling,” but are instead simply asked to hold a chopstick in their mouths, they get the same benefits. The reason reflects the two-way nature of the mind-body connection: Our expressions are not simply the outward reflection of an internal state, but instead help to mediate and determine those inward feelings. The implication is simple but profound: If you’re feeling stressed, worried, sad, or angry, go ahead and trick your mind by forcing a smile. “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,” Thích Nhất Hạnh says, “but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

That is the broad message, at least, from the perspective of spiritual and practical psychology, but does that kind of happy-talk apply in litigation? After all, at the heart of every civil case, there is a physical tragedy, or a perceived theft or violation of trust. When either working up or presenting those kinds of stories, does it still make sense to smile? Yes!  Appropriately, but yes. Not only do smiles and a good sense of humor allow litigators and witnesses to relieve the tension, but they also play an important role in determining credibility, as shown by some new research. Appropriate smiles can in some cases make you appear more intelligent and believable, while helping you feel better to boot. This post takes a quick look at the research, as well as the implications before and during trial.

Both the content and the form of the trial process can be hostile to our natural inclination to smile. But beyond the general good advice to smile anyway, here are three implications for litigators.

Smile Appropriately in Court

Yes, it has been studied. Researchers observed real witnesses in trial, giving attention to how often those witnesses smiled and how highly they scored on the Witness Credibility Scale (Brodsky, Griffin & Cramer, 2010). The result: Those who smile are generally perceived as more likable  (Nagle, Brodsky & Weeter, 2014). In another study also coming out this year, researchers also showed that faces perceived to be high in intelligence are also more likely to be smiling (Kleisner, Chvátalová & Flegr, 2014).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the prosecutor should grin like a fool while describing a grisly murder, nor does it mean that the expert witness should smile broadly while opposing counsel points out gaps in her method. The smile has to be appropriate and needs to fit with the content and the context. But wherever there are opportunities to smile naturally, or to show your humor (humor, not “jokes”), then a good attorney or witness will seize that opportunity.

Smile Often in Preparation

Time is valuable when preparing for trial and you don’t want to waste what is valuable. But a team shouldn’t be afraid to do some joking around during even serious meetings. There is one attorney that I’ve worked with many times who is known as a deadly serious litigator but also as one of the most hilarious individuals you will ever meet. Even, and especially, during the stress of trial, he will regale the team with long monologues about the day’s events in trial, about the other side, or about an upcoming witness, keeping everyone in stitches when they could have been working. I believe that it’s not just that this attorney, like many, enjoys center stage. I think it’s also likely that he sees the chance to smile and laugh, for 30 minutes or so, as one way of protecting the trial team’s morale. For the nervous witness, it can be helpful as well: If you spent ten percent or so of your prep time laughing, that is probably time well spent.

And Smile Especially If You’re a Woman

This one goes in the category of “true,” though not in the categories of  “fair” or “just.” Women benefit more from smiling than men do, and incur a greater penalty if they don’t. In the study discussed above (Nagle, Brodsky & Weeter, 2014), women who smiled were viewed as more credible than women who didn’t smile, and more credible than men who did. For some reason, smiling women were still less credible than unsmiling men (possibly reflecting the general tendency for males to be rated as more credible generally — again, true but not fair or just).

The researchers’ theory for this is that smiling is expected more of women: They are supposed to be happier and to do more of the work on the “relationship” aspects of communication. That means that women would get more of a benefit when they do smile, and experience more of a penalty when they don’t.

There is one final point to be made about smiling, and that is that it is culturally specific. As a Russian friend once told me, straight-faced, “You Americans smile constantly…and for no good reason.” There may indeed be much that is artificial about it.  But within the dominant culture of this country, we don’t just shake hands when meeting someone, we smile. It is an important step of self-presentation, and self-presentation matters in all forms of persuasion.

© Copyright 2014 Persuasion Strategies. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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