Smile Darn Ya Smile

December 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Things change. Fashions come and go, some rapidly, some slowly. Some have economic forces behind them. With music and clothing, whole industries push us to regard last year’s songs or shoes as oldies to be replaced with something more current. But nobody is promoting Olivia and Noah as baby names or telling us not to give our daughter a name like Barbara. Nobody encouraged us to use the word “issue” where we once said “problem” (“Houston we have an issue”?) or “needs to” instead of “should.” (See this post from 2012.)  Most of us didn’t even notice those changes in language.

What about fashions in faces? Here are four high school yearbook photos, two from the 1960s, two from the current decade. Guess which two are from each decade.

Not too hard, right? The hair is the giveaway, not the faces. B and C are from the 60s, A and D from the 2010s. 

A team of researchers – Shiry Ginosar and four others at Berkeley and Brown – has been looking at yearbooks to see how looks have changed over the years.* They’ve got big data – well, pretty big: 37,000 yearbook photos across the decades since 1905. (To make historical comparisons, they used only full-face pictures – they edited out the three-quarter views that became popular in later years.) They then created clusters of similar photos in each decade, and from those clusters created a sort of visual average. Of necessity, these composites – blended photos – look a bit fuzzy. Here are the clusters for the 60s and the 2010s. The left-most picture is the composite.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Even in the composite, the hairstyle is notably different. If I’d included the girls with glasses, the historical differences would be obvious. None of the 21st-century girls are wearing glasses. They prefer contacts. Or lousy vision.

But there’s another difference that you might not have looked for. Try another quiz. Here are four sets of pictures – girl-boy pairs from the 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, and 2010s. Put them in chronological order:

The answer is D, A, C, B. The order shown above is 1970s, 2010s, 2000s, 1960s.

The key is the smile.

You probably noticed that the girls smile more than do the boys. That’s true for all decades. But the researchers also found a nearly continuous increase in the amount of smiling by both sexes.  Here are the composites for each decade.

And here are actual photos that are most representative of each period.

The researchers quantified the degree of smiling. They created a measure based on the degree of curvature of the lips.

The graph makes things even clearer than do the photos. Smiles have been trending for over a century.

Ginosar et al. have only one explanation for the upward trend – technology. In the early 20th century, they say, photo portraiture was still under the influence of 19th century technology. Those old cameras required an exposure of several seconds, sometimes as long as half a minute. When you have to be motionless for that long, a neutral expression is easiest to maintain. Besides, photo portraiture began as a cheaper alternative to oil painting, and the convention in portrait painting, where subjects had to maintain a pose for a long time, was that people should look serious.

The trouble with this explanation is that the Kodak camera was introduced in 1888. By 1900, everyone was taking snapshots rather than posing solemnly for photographs taken by a man hiding under a black cloth with a large wooden box resting on a tripod. The snapshot was to 1903 what the selfie was to 2013. But perhaps old poses hang on even though they are no longer technologically necessary, and fashions in yearbook poses diffuse gradually.

But why the decline in smiles from 1950 to 1965? These were, by some accounts, the most contented years of the century, free of conflict and turmoil, even boring. And why did the trend turn upward again in the early 1960s as things were starting to go downhill? (“It all began in about 1963. That was the year, to overdramatize a bit, that a decade began to fall apart.” James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime).

I have no idea. You lovers of zeitgeist explanations, feel free to speculate. I’ll just add that the song and Disney cartoon that provide the title of this post (video here) were created in 1931 at the depths of the Depression, and the smiley face was invented in 1963.

Have a nice day.

*The article, with many more yearbook photos, is here.)

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