Cognitive Daily

Spot the fake smile

There’s a fun little test over at the BBC: Spot the fake smile (via Green Ideas).

Try to spot the difference between fake smiles and real smiles! I got 17 out of 20. It helps to understand the research about authentic smiles.

Update: Now I’m curious. I wonder if our readers are really that good, or if people are only posting their scores when they do well, so — I’ve added a poll, below the fold.


  1. #1 Rich
    April 26, 2008

    Surprised myself by getting 19/20. I’m not sure I’m pleased that I’m good at spotting a fake smile–I don’t think I’d like to make a habit of evaluating other’s smiles to see if they’re fake.

  2. #2 6EQUJ5
    April 26, 2008

    16/20, and I went in as ‘fully pessimistic’.

    I was severely myopic as a child, and it wasn’t until I was 10 that I first saw a face clearly. I’ve never thought of myself as good at reading faces (or ‘body language’).

    Reviewing the results, it might help to know that 10 of the 20 smiles will be genuine. Since success in detecting fakes is a function of sensitivity, specificity, and prevalence, the test would be fairer in stating, or at least bounding (“8 to 12 genuine out of 20”) the prevalence.

  3. #3 Cpress
    April 26, 2008

    15/20 but the interesting thing is that the 5 I missed were in the first 8, after that I had a perfect score. So some how, without any feedback, I improved, or the first few were harder to judge.

  4. #4 rockhead
    April 26, 2008

    19/20. Also surprised but I’ve always felt like my BS-detector was darn good.

  5. #5 Freiddie
    April 26, 2008

    12/20 I screwed up the first few ones; then I remembered that eyes are the distinguishing factor…

  6. #6 The Science Pundit
    April 26, 2008


    I may have read about this before, but I just looked at the eyes and the skin between the eyes and the cheeks to see if it crinkled up. There were about 5-6 that were borderline and so I “randomly” guessed.

  7. #7 Margaret
    April 26, 2008

    11/20 I think if I had taken this test ten years ago I would have done much better. I am so used to fake smiles that it’s hard to tell when someone is being authentic. I guessed that more people were being fake when they were in fact being genuine.

  8. #8 Scote
    April 26, 2008

    Null Set!

    The BBC tells me that the latest version of Safari is an “old browser” and I should “upgrade” to Netscape 🙂

  9. #9 Brian Tani
    April 26, 2008


    And I my errors were in the first half of the experiment. I don’t know if that’s relevant or not.

  10. #10 ryan
    April 26, 2008

    13/20. And yes, I suspect that this is a severe case of publication bias.

    And I was even looking at the eyes! I may be more sociopathic than I thought.

  11. #11 T.O.
    April 26, 2008

    18/20 by utterly ignoring all intuition and looking for wrinkles around the eyes.

  12. #12 Ben_Wraith
    April 26, 2008

    19/20. I put that I took eyes most into account.

  13. #13 Tom
    April 26, 2008

    13/20 – I identified 1 fake smile as genuine and 6 genuine smiles as fake. I’m not sure if that’s something you’re looking into, but could be interesting 🙂

  14. #14 Lani
    April 26, 2008

    12/20 OK, how could I do that badly? They were all artificial in a way weren’t they? I mean, they were all in this experimental setting, right, so how genuine could they be? No, I just did really badly! Whew!

  15. #15 Kevin W. Parker
    April 26, 2008

    17/20. As others have said, I mostly paid attention to the eyes based on something I read a long time ago about how to tell real smiles from fake ones.

  16. #16 ilegirl
    April 26, 2008

    16/20 Like cpress (#3) I improved as I proceeded through the test. I also looked at the eyes. It’s probably a lot easier to make the distinction when the person is in the same room with you, because other body language would provide additional clues.

  17. #17 Roy Huggins
    April 26, 2008

    15/20. Also got the first 3 wrong. I definitely felt like I was trying to figure out how to distinguish during the first several faces.

    Eventually I distinguished based on how the person’s eyes interacted with the camera. I.e. if they kept eye contact steadily, I marked the smile as fake. I started using that heuristic after face 5, so I guess I got 13/15 using that heuristic. I wonder if this heuristic was (somewhat) successful because a genuine smile, as described in the debrief, is likely to make the eyes appear less focused on the camera.

    I also noted the “recovery” pattern. I.e. some people seemed to make a big smile and then go right back to neutral face. But I couldn’t quite tell what the circumstances of that were so I decided to ignore it. My wife noted the same pattern.

    And my wife got 14/20. 5 of the 6 actors who “fooled” her were male. For me it was 3 female, 2 male. Interesting?

  18. #18 gatoscuro
    April 26, 2008

    18/20, but I regularly teach about Ekman’s research.

  19. #19 Nancy
    April 26, 2008

    17/20, I looked for the telltale wrinkles around the eyes.

  20. #20 Stagyar zil Doggo
    April 27, 2008

    12/20. I got 8/10 of the genuine smiles right, but only 4/10 of the fakes.

  21. #21 theeyeshaveit
    April 27, 2008

    i did pretty well at first, and then i started doubting myself- trying to think about the logistics of the test rather than focusing on the smiles. i go 13/20 and most of the ones i missed were borderline anyways, but there were a few surprizes.

  22. #22 Tom Taint
    April 27, 2008

    got 17/20 but if you’d asked me to guess how many I got right at the end of it I would have said probably about 10 because by the end I didn’t feel like I had any idea of why I was picking one or the other.

  23. #23 Danielle Rudder
    April 27, 2008

    I got 10/20, exactly what would be predicted by chance. But I usually have an uncanny ability to tell what people are feeling in real life. I wonder what the results would be if the pictures were presented as 2-second video clips instead of static pictures?

  24. #24 Dave Munger
    April 27, 2008

    Danielle, I think that may be your problem — they *were* short video clips; you were supposed to play each clip before deciding. Maybe the video was incompatible with your browser?

  25. #25 CanadianChick
    April 27, 2008


    the two I got wrong were the two I hesitated over…

    I used two criteria – one was to look at the eyes, the second was if I felt myself smiling in response. Usually used the first, sometimes used the second if I wasn’t sure. On the two I hesitated over, I didn’t get much from either criteria…

  26. #26 Gilbert Erik
    April 27, 2008

    I thought something had gone wrong when I scored 20/20. I think the thing that led me to get so many correct was watching their cheeks and eyes… and being distracted by a show on TV. Maybe it’s because I didn’t overthink it.

  27. #27 kate
    April 27, 2008

    I got 17/20. And of the three errors, I had a ‘hmm, I think I may have gotten that one wrong’ feeling about two of them, when for the most part I was pretty confident.

    I put the ‘mouth’ down as the part of the face that helps most, but my instinct was to put the eyes, but then I thought that might be silly. Should have gone with my instinct.

  28. #28 Rebecca
    April 27, 2008

    I got 14 out of 20.

    Of the 14 I chose accurately, I responded to “smiling eyes” and how the shoulders go slightly up when laughing.

    Of the 6 I chose incorrectly, I decided that those smiles were “weaker” based on the assumption that “fake smiles” are generally overdone.

  29. #29 Who Cares
    April 27, 2008

    16/20 not bad for someone who never looks other people in the eye (as that seems to be the most common way to identify smiles). That said people who put up a fake smile seem to be more rigid as well, that is less movement of the head and sometimes upper body.

  30. #30 Aaron Whitby
    April 27, 2008

    19/20 and the one I got wrong I actually ignored my gut and switched my answer…watched the eyes mainly and for how many teeth showed. But as an Englishman maybe I had an unfair advantage in reading my countrymen.

  31. #31 cm
    April 28, 2008

    14/20. Several possible confounds with these videos…

    1) “Smile kinetics”. A lot of my (not very good) judgment had to do with how the smile “resolved”. There was a guy near the end who was a genuine smile but I marked as fake because his smile faded quickly into a grim expression, and in real life, I find a smile tends to fade quite slowly or else it seems like the person is a bit crazy. For this reason, I feel the video presentations were not very consistent, in that some ended with the smiler still (partially) smiling, and some ended with a blank stare.

    2) Eye contact. In a few of the genuine smiles, there is obvious eye movement, as if the smiler is looking at the experimenter. This is a good “tell” of the smiler smiling genuinely *at* someone. Few smile genuinely at a camera lens.

    3) Laughter. A few of these were not just smiles, but it seemed as though some laughter-like event was happening, too. We all smile when we laugh, so the presence of the rapid head movements that indicate laughter is another “tell” of a genuine smile.

  32. #32 botogol
    April 28, 2008

    I got 12.
    I’m not sure about this test: how do they obtain the ‘genuine’ smiles, and what makes sure they really, really are ‘genuine’?

    Do you point a camera at a subject and then show them a video of a panda sneezing?

    It’s hard, becasue you can’t just produce a genuine smile to order (or can you…..)

  33. #33 Bill
    April 28, 2008

    10/20 – getting more autistic with every one of these tests.

    Sociopath wife got 16/20 – think she’s insane!

  34. #34 Brock
    April 28, 2008

    18/20 – I was surprised I did so well. I don’t know much about it but I thought I remembered reading (probably here) about the wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and I looked for that.

  35. #35 ctenotrish
    April 28, 2008

    14/20 – not too too bad!

  36. #36 minusRusty
    April 28, 2008

    So it looks like if one got 14, 15, 16, or 17, that’s about average for your readership. But how does that compare with the “general population” who took that test?

  37. #37 linusandlucy
    April 28, 2008

    13/20 – of the 7 wrong, 6 were for the opposite gender. Most of errors were guessing fake when the smile was genuine.

  38. #38 Prof Kienstra
    April 29, 2008

    17/20.. the ones i got wrong were the same gender…2 fakes i guessed as genuine, one genuine i guessed as a fake. What does this say?

  39. #39 Cliffy
    April 29, 2008

    To the extent the population here is doing pretty well, I think the most likely explanation is that the audience of Cognitive Daily is more likely than the general population to already know things about the science in question — specifically, that the eyes are the thing to look at when judging whether smiles are fake. I wouldn’t have done so well except I read an article in Discover about the same phenomenon a year or two ago.

  40. #40 letyran
    April 30, 2008

    17/20…I noticed that the real smile lingers on people’s faces a while after they’ve stopped smiling. The fake ones were able to pull a straight face right after the “smile” ended. Also, I noticed that the people with real smiles tend to blink more than the fake ones.

  41. #41 Fischer
    April 30, 2008

    Was looking for the winkles around the eyes but noticed a funny thing in retrospect: whenever I saw a genuine smile, I smiled as well, almost unconsciously.

  42. #42 Dread Polack
    April 30, 2008

    I got 15/20, and like a lot of people mentioned, I got the early ones wrong, including the first three. I have no special training, but I think I’ve heard before that the eyes are the key. It seemed to be true during this test, so I said as much at the end.

    I might also be a bit more aware of the eyes bit because (maybe it’s my eastern-European heritage) my eyes are fairly narrow, and I have fleshy cheeks, so my eyes often squint completely shut when I’m smiling or laughing hard enough 😀

  43. #43 Heather
    May 5, 2008

    I got 18/20. One wrong was genuine when I said fake, the other was fake when I said genuine, but both were male…

  44. #44 Kate
    May 6, 2008

    I got 19/20. I’ve read several times about how to tell the difference so I mostly was looking at their eyes. Also noticed their whole bodies tended to move more with the genuine smiles. It did bother me some, as someone else commented, that some genuine smiles returned to grim expressions which is a little creepy.

    I expected to do well, but what I didn’t expect is that all the genuine smiles made me smile, even though I’m not particularly in a cheerful mood. I couldn’t help myself. None of the fake smiles did including the one I messed up. I guess all those platitudes about smiling might be right.

  45. #45 Kurt
    May 6, 2008


    I was another who quickly starting keying on wrinkles around the eyes instead of what the mouth was doing.

    – Kurt

  46. #46 Ian
    May 7, 2008

    16/20 with two false positives and two false negatives. Interstingly, I felt during the test that I was getting better, but had two of my mistakes in the last four.

    I’m heartedned by the results, as I went in slightly pessimistic and actually felt incompetent during most of the test.

    btw, I put down that the most important place to look was the mouth, but there was no option to use other clues such as the amount the subjects’ heads moved.

  47. #47 kim boone
    May 8, 2008

    19/20. I started out with looking at the eyes, but after seeing a few smiles I was sure were genuine, I switched to the “Do I want to smile back”-strategy. Pretty accurate, apparently.

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