Honest signaling in trust interactions: smiles rated as genuine induce trust and signal higher earning opportunities

Samuele Centorrino, Elodie Djemaï, Astrid Hopfensitz, Manfred Milinski, and Paul Seabright


We test the hypothesis that smiles perceived as honest serve as a signal that has evolved to induce cooperation in situations requiring mutual trust. Potential trustees (84 participants from Toulouse, France) made two video clips averaging around 15 seconds for viewing by potential senders before the latter decided whether to ‘send’ or ‘keep’ a lower stake (4 euros) or higher stake (8 euros). Senders (198 participants from Lyon, France) made trust decisions with respect to the recorded clips. If money was sent to the trustee, stakes were tripled and trustees could decide to keep all, two thirds or one half of the tripled stakes. Clips were further rated concerning the genuineness of the displayed smiles. We observe that smiles rated as more genuine strongly predict judgments about the trustworthiness of trustees, and willingness to send them money. We observe a relation between costs and benefits: smiles from trustees playing for higher stakes are rated as significantly more genuine. Finally, we show that those rated as smiling genuinely return more money on average to senders. An increase of one standard deviation in rating of smile genuineness is associated with an unconditional expected gain of about one dollar and thirty cents to senders in the two trials of the experiment. Potential gains for senders could be significantly increased from taking smiles rated as genuine into account.

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Published in

Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 36, n. 1, January 2015, pp. 8–16