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Many economists and biologists view cooperation as anomalous: animals (including humans) that pursue their own self-interest have superior survival odds to their altruistic or cooperative neighbors. However, in many situations there are substantial gains to the group that can achieve cooperation among its members, and to individuals who are members of those groups. For an individual, the key to successful cooperation is the ability to identify cooperative partners. The ability to signal and detect the intention to cooperate would be a very valuable skill for humans to posses. Smiling is frequently observed in social interactions between humans, and may be used as a signal of the intention to cooperate. However, given that humans have the ability to smile falsely, the ability to detect intentions may go far beyond the ability to recognize a smile. In the present study, we examine the value of a smile in a simple bargaining context. 120 subjects participate in a laboratory experiment consisting of a simple two-person, one-shot "trust" game with monetary payoffs. Each subject is shown a photograph of his partner prior to the game; the photograph is taken from a collection that includes one smiling and one non-smiling image for each of 60 individuals. These photographs are also rated by a separate set of subjects who complete a semantic differential survey on affective and behavioral interpretations of the images. Results lend some support to the prediction that smiles can elicit cooperation among strangers in a one-shot interaction. Other characteristics of faces also appear to elicit cooperation. Factor analysis of the survey data reveals an important factor, termed "cooperation", which is strongly related to trusting behavior in the game. This factor is correlated with smiling, but is somewhat more strongly predictive of behavior than a smile alone. In addition, males are found to be more cooperative, especially towards female images, whereas females are least cooperative towards female images.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Economic Psychology

Publication Date





617 - 640