A picture’s worth a thousand words: The predictive power of smiles on marital success

A picture’s worth a thousand words: The predictive power of smiles on marital success

Jesica Bimstein, Veronica Dolan, Isabel Marcovici, & Sarah Thomson

smiling couple


In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the predictive value of smiles and the relationship between positive emotions and future success. Harker and Keltner (2001) found  that women who expressed higher amounts of positive emotions in their college year book pictures were associated with more favorable personality traits and social interactions, as well as more successful  marriages and better  personal well being in the long term.

The current research examined the predictive value of an ‘authentic’ smile, also known as a “Duchenne” smile, and whether it is positively correlated with success in marriage. Our research examines the smiles of both individuals in their wedding photos to determine if the occurrence of  authentic smiles in these photos predicts future  marital status. In the photo above only the male is showing  Duchenne smile. Our final prediction was that smile authenticity is a global indicator of positive emotions and therefore these relationships will exist for couples from different cultures.


The couples were sampled from three countries (USA, France and India) and both members of the couple had to have resided for the majority of their lives in the same country.  The celebrity member or members of the couple came consisted of actors, singers, musicians, models, and writers/journalists.  For each couple we recorded their current marital status, their ages when married, number of children, and number of prior marriages.

To standardize the sample of wedding photos, we only selected photos in which the individual’s eyes and mouth  were clearly visible for coding. A Duchenne smile is distinguished from non-Duchenne smiles by additional movement of the muscles surrounding the eyes (i.e., orbicularis occuli), resulting in crow’s feet, raised cheeks, and bagging under the eyes (see figure below). Inter-coder reliability was checked for a random sample of 20 photos and good reliability was found.

smile coding


All marriages occurred during the years 1991-2006 and the year of marriage was entered as a covariate in the data analyses. Smile score was coded as 0 if no one smiled, 1 if one person was providing a Duchenne smile, and 2 if both people provided Duchenne smiles. The presence of Duchenne smiles in wedding photos did not predict years of marriage. The frequency of Duschenne smiles in each couple across the three countries are displayed in the table below.


The lack of significant findings could reflect a lack of standardization in our wedding photos as we could not control how, when, where, and by whom, these photos were taken, unlike the year book photos used by Harker and Keltner (2001) in their research. Our research focused on celebrity couples and this population may not be ideal for such research analyses due to the difficulty of maintaining a successful relationship as a celebrity. The table above highlighted that having both members of the couple showing authentic smiles in their wedding photos and suggests that wedding photos may not be ideal for researching the relationship between expressing positive emotions and marital happiness.


Harker, L. A., & Keltner, D. (2001). Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 112-124.

 0 smiles

1 smile

2 smiles

USA 1 12 6
INDIA 4 7 5
FRANCE 2 4 5