A Losing Smile

IFL Chicago Weigh-In

Researchers examined (pdf) whether martial arts fighters who smile prior to a fight, which is an unconscious expression of submission, are more likely to lose:

As expected, smile intensity predicted both the outcomes of fights as well as the more detailed measures of in-fight hostility. Interestingly, the smiles predicted both reduced hostility from the smiler as well as increased hostility from his opponent. In other words, it seemed both fighters were attuned to the information being communicated in the pre-fight smile. These results held even when controlling for existing differences in skill (i.e. the betting odds of the fight) and strength (height and weight). Though don’t go drastically altering your gambling strategy just yet -the betting line still did a better job overall in predicting fights compared to just smile intensity. …

You might interpret this as a kind of “nice guys finish last” effect. But that’s not quite right.

The authors also looked at whether smile intensity in the pre-fight photos predicted dominance and outcomes in other future fights. If the smiles are just helping us separate the gentle from the aggressive, then the nice guys should be performing consistently worse than their more hostile counterparts. This was not the case. These smiles are context-specific; they reveal something about the power dynamics between only these two fighters, not something enduring about the kinds of people that these fighters are. A fighter, smiling against opponent A because he knows he is outmatched, might be stone-faced when up against the weaker opponent B (who, by extension, would in that circumstance be reduced to a grinning fool).

(Photo: Justin Levens of the Southern California Condors (L) and Brian Foster of the San Jose Razorclaws (R) face off during the International Fight League weigh-in for the fights between the Condors versus the Razorclaws and the Red Bears versus Silverbacks at Buffalo Wild Wings on May 18, 2007 in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. By Brian Bahr/Getty Images for IFL)