How do I Identify a Fake Smile?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A fake smile actually uses different muscles than a real smile. Since a real smile is involuntary and a fake one is deliberate, different portions of the brain control the muscles used for each. The muscle responsible for drawing the corners of the mouth outwards, zygomaticus major, is active in both types, but additional muscles are involved in real smiles. When a person genuinely smiles, the orbicularis oculi and the pars orbitalis contract in addition to zygomaticus major, causing the cheeks to raise and the skin around the eyes to crease. A genuine smile is also known as a Duchenne smile, as French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne discovered the distinction between the muscles used in fake and real smiles in the 19th century.

The ends of the eyebrows dip while the cheeks raise in a real smile.
The ends of the eyebrows dip while the cheeks raise in a real smile.

One of the best ways to spot a fake smile is to look at the end of the eyebrows, which dip slightly when a smile is real. Also, in a real smile, the fold of skin between the eyebrow and the eyelid moves downward. False smiles are less likely to be symmetrical than a real smile, as voluntary control of the zygomaticus major is not always perfect. A genuine smile lasts for up to five seconds, while a fake can last much longer. Though a false smile can be very convincing and can even cause the eyes to scrunch up a bit, with practice, many people can distinguish a genuine Duchenne smile from a deliberate one.

The area around the eyes remains flat and unmoved during a fake smile.
The area around the eyes remains flat and unmoved during a fake smile.

Smiles expressing happiness are not just superficial; people in every culture smile the same way, and even people born blind smile involuntarily when they are happy. Many biologists think that the smile originated from an expression of fear, like a grimace, as some primates bare slightly clenched teeth to indicate that they are harmless to potential predators. Being able to spot a fake smile may also be an evolutionary adaptation, as determining whether others are really cooperating and bonding with you or not can confer an evolutionary advantage.

A real smile lasts for up to five seconds.
A real smile lasts for up to five seconds.
Real smiles are involuntary.
Real smiles are involuntary.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


So the question becomes: in order to put one's self into a better mood, is it better to smile, or to relax?


@giddion – That's one way I can tell a fake smile from a real one. Even if someone has learned how to fake a smile wonderfully, they won't be able to shake off the muscle fatigue that comes from holding it too long.

Of course, sometimes, people's faces shake because they are nervous. Often, though, it is because they are nervous that they are faking a smile. I don't blame these people for faking it.


@watson42 – I feel the same way. I have to fake a smile at business functions and when I'm around my husband's friends, and though I'm not fully convinced that my smile looks real, they seem to believe it.

Fake smiles hurt your face after awhile. I think that's a big difference between real ones and fake ones. The real ones only last a few seconds, and they don't generally have time to make your facial muscles ache.

When you fake a smile, you sometimes have to hold it for longer than that. I have had to fake a smile off and on for hours before, and this made my facial muscles so fatigued that the corners of my mouth started to shake as I held the smile later in the evening.


I don't like being fake, so if I'm not happy, you won't see a smile on my face. I dislike seeing fake smiles on other people, because they are dishonest expressions.

I don't trust people who fake smiles. I have no idea what is really going on in their heads, but I know it isn't good.

I've always been really good at telling the real from the fake. I really didn't know all the tips and tricks mentioned in this article, but I go by my intuition, and it doesn't usually steer me wrong.


It's pretty easy to learn how to fake a smile, since most people don't know how to tell the real one from a fake. I always try to use as many facial muscles as possible without looking scary or forced when I need to fake a smile, and I haven't had anyone call me out on it yet.


I don't know if my fake smile is very convincing at all, but I've noticed there are some people who just want to believe your smile is genuine, so they will. I suppose we all have those awkward situation when it is just easier to pretend to be having a good time, to like where you are, et cetera, rather than being honest.


Some people are really good at the fake smile. Either they do it a lot or are just generally good liars and actors. However, with those people you can also often determine their genuine feelings through body language and vocal expression in addition to the smile.



Post your comments
Forgot password?