George W.’s Smirk: A Chatterbox Investigation

George W. Bush’s smirk has become a hot political story. On C-Span, Bill Kristol revealed that Bush’s “funny little grin, almost a smirk, that comes across his face occasionally at inappropriate times” had occasioned perplexed discussion among staffers at the cutting-edge-conservative Weekly Standard, which Kristol edits. Brian Williams and the Boston Globe’s David Nyhan also noted the Smirk Problem on MSNBC and CNN, respectively, prompting a superbly detailed Dec. 3 article by the Wall Street Journal’s Jackie Calmes. Calmes described the following eerie scene:

At a campaign stop in Dubuque, Iowa, Mr. Bush toured a Christian pregnancy-counseling center to promote his antiabortion views and support for faith-based social services. As he sat at a table with two female workers there, he continuously wore a sort of smile as he listened to each woman. One of the women, a counselor for “post-abortion trauma,” told how she had become pregnant at 20, helplessly felt she had no alternative but abortion, “and for 15 years … suffered in silence.” Still, the right side of Mr. Bush’s mouth seemed frozen in a half smile.

The smirk resurfaced at last week’s New Hampshire debate, according to The New Yorker’s Joe Klein, who in the Dec. 13 issue writes that Bush

will squinny his eyes, raise his chin, lift an eyebrow, and curl his lip slightly–his face seems to be involved in a somewhat painful, quasi-involuntary struggle to prevent itself from erupting into a broad, self-satisfied smile. This facial skirmish is often accompanied by a slight forward bend at the waist and a what-me-worry? shrug, and they often occur after the Governor has delivered a line particularly well, or thinks he has.

The smirk is causing much justifiable worry in Republican circles. “I hear some saying that his friendly outgoing personality on TV is mistaken for a smirk and smugness,” a “senior Republican official” was quoted as saying in the Dec. 8 Boston Globe. “A few have said to me, ‘He has to make sure that charm is not mistaken for arrogance.’” Presumably Bush himself got the message; his smirk was not much in evidence at this week’s Arizona debate. (Click here to see for yourself.)

Clearly, though, the smirk will return, and when it does, political spinmeisters will try to define it away as an “image problem,” a mere matter of faulty subjective analysis by pundits and voters. A far more interesting question than how Bush’s smirk is interpreted, however, is: What does it mean? Calmes quotes C-Span’s Brian Lamb as saying, in effect, that it’s just a cruel trick of genetic physiognomy: “His father has the same thing; it’s just not as pronounced as it is with ‘W.’” But since personality is also to some extent genetically based and, moreover, can be passed environmentally from one generation to the next–particularly when father and son share not only the same home but also a few institutional influences (e.g., Andover and Yale)–it is conceivable that the shared smirk signifies a shared … arrogance.

Klein, quite rightly, warns us not to be too hasty in reaching this conclusion:

It would be easy to mistake such elaborate body language for arrogance, as more than a few observers have, whereas the true meaning of the tic may be the exact opposite. It may just signify relief–that he has successfully managed to jump another public hurdle without embarrassing himself. Or it may mean nothing at all.

Concluding that the matter of Bush’s smirk was too weighty to be left in the hands of nonscientists, Chatterbox e-mailed Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco. According to the Orlando Sentinel Tribune, Ekman is the nation’s “leading smile researcher.” His academic writings on how to interpret facial expressions have been used by lawyers to figure out which potential jurors to eject during voir dire and by gamblers to figure out the giveaway signs of a card player’s bluff. If anyone could explain the meaning of George W.’s troubling smirk, it was Ekman. But Ekman made clear in a response to Chatterbox’s note that he wouldn’t play:

I watch George W. and have many thoughts about it. But I have a policy about never talking about anyone who is in office or running for office, or is in litigation. So I can’t help you. I don’t know anyone responsible and knowledgeable who can.

Undaunted, Chatterbox marched off to a nearby bookstore and purchased What the Face Reveals: Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), edited by Ekman and Erika Rosenberg. He then burrowed in for a long read.

Chatterbox learned that the science of studying facial expressions is relatively new: Before the 1960s, apparently, “it was deemed a useless enterprise.” This consensus changed as a result of work done by Silvan Tomkins, Ekman, and a few others. In 1971, for example, Ekman and W.V. Friesen examined the facial expressions of Japanese and American students as they watched “stressful films.” When they watched these films alone, the Japanese and the Americans had similar, distressed expressions on their faces. When they watched these films in the presence of an “authority figure,” however, the Americans’ facial expressions were essentially the same as when they watched the films alone, whereas the Japanese “showed much less negative affect, smiled sometimes, and actually masked negative emotion with smiling behavior.” Conclusion: Americans are less guarded in letting facial expressions show what they’re feeling. A reassuring finding in light of the question before us.

During the 1970s, Ekman developed a method called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to measure “all visually discernible facial movement.” The building blocks of FACS are 46 “action units” (AUs) such as a wrinkling of the nose, a puffing of the cheeks, dilation of the nostrils, squinting, and so on. These AUs, usually identified by the facial muscles that perform these various tasks, are the tools used in What the Face Reveals. (To look at a few examples, click here and here.)

Sadly, there is no chapter on smirking per se in Ekman and Rosenberg’s book. (In a 1992 report to the National Science Foundation, Ekman and several co-authors reject the term “smirk” on the grounds that it’s too coarse and imprecise, “ignoring differences between a variety of different muscular actions to which [it] may refer, and mixing description with inferences about meaning or the message which [it] may convey.”) But there are three chapters in the book that may nonetheless be relevant to the smirking question:

  • Let’s start with a chapter (by Ekman and Joseph G. Hager) titled “The Asymmetry of Facial Actions.” George W.’s smirk is asymmetrical, is it not? The chapter describes an experiment in which 33 right-handed Caucasian women ages 18 to 53 were exposed to various mildly unpleasant experiences and asked to smile. Then they were asked, “Now that this is done, aren’t you glad it’s over?” This inspired spontaneous smiles. Ekman and Hager found that the smiles-on-demand were less symmetrical than the spontaneous smiles. This might mean George W.’s apparent smirk is merely a forced smile, not a smug or mean or even dishonest one.
  • Another interpretation is suggested in a chapter (by Ekman and several others) titled “Type A Behavior Pattern.” Here, the authors argue that the group of people most likely to suffer heart attacks are more apt than others to glare and show facial signs of disgust. George W. doesn’t glare much, as far as Chatterbox can tell, but his smirk may be an expression of disgust. If that’s true, he would seem to face a heightened risk of heart disease.
  • The most provocative chapter in the book (by Ekman, Wallace V. Friesen, and Maureen O’Sullivan) is titled “Smiles When Lying.” According to Ekman, Friesen, and O’Sullivan, there is a clear distinction between “felt happy” smiles and “masking” smiles intended to hide some other emotion. (The subject doesn’t actually have to be telling a lie; rather, the facial expression itself is the lie.) Felt happy smiles “are defined as the action of the zygomatic major [lip] and orbicularis oculi, pars lateralis [eye] muscles.” Masking smiles use a whole bunch of other facial muscles associated with fear, disgust, contempt, sadness, and anger. One such muscle is the triangularis, which (judging from an illustrative photograph on Page 208) pulls the corner of the lip down in an expression that Chatterbox would call … a smirk.

Chatterbox will refrain from endorsing any of these three hypotheses–forced smile, susceptibility to heart attack, falsity–to explain George W.’s smirk. Rather, he calls on Ekman or some other expert to tell us which, if any, is correct.