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What a Simple Smile Reveals About Fear, Joy, and Clowns

Here's what makes a smile irresistible until we see what's underneath.

Key points

  • People are quite skilled at telling the difference between honest, genuine, and fake, deceptive smiles.
  • A genuine smile, or "Duchenne" smile, communicates joy and happiness, and it's hard to fake.
  • We are uncomfortable with fake smiles because they send the message that we are being deceived or that something is less than real.
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

How does something as simple as a smile get transformed into a creepy box-office horror hit? Call me old-school, but I prefer smiles that communicate something positive and happy about your internal mental state. But that’s just it! The deceptive angle that makes the movie work is this: a genuine smile sends a different message than a forced smile.

Real vs. Fake Smiles

A century and a half ago, French anatomist, Duchenne de Boulogne identified features that distinguish real and fake smiles. The critical differences are in the muscles that wrap around the eyes, known as the orbicularis oculi. All smiles (including real and fake) display pulled-up corners of the mouth, but a genuine Duchenne smile includes the tell-tale wrinkling of the corners of the eyes into crows’ feet.

But we don’t really need all that technical knowledge because it turns out, humans are pretty good at picking out real smiles from fake ones. As the work of Paul Ekman highlights, humans can produce thousands of distinct facial expressions, including 19 different types of smiles. However, only one of these is a “genuine” or Duchenne smile. This is an involuntary natural smile of enjoyment that conveys genuine happiness. To great creepy effect, the characters in the movie Smile seem to be exhibiting non-Duchenne smiles because the lips and mouth look happy, but the eyes are too wide open.

The Uncanny Valley

Really cool artificial intelligence research suggests that we project personality characteristics onto all sorts of inanimate objects, including rocks, cars, and robots, based on physical characteristics, how they sound, and what function they serve. In general, when we anthropomorphize or give human-like qualities to an inanimate object, we feel emotionally closer to that machine. But this only works up to a point. In some cases, animating an object does not work in the long run. One difficulty is that you eventually run the risk of falling into the uncanny valley. This is a spot on a graph where the robots seem so human-like that it becomes eerie. At that point, there is a precipitous drop in comfort level (in chart form, this would look like a valley – hence the term).

It seems that the nonhumans that look really, really human make us feel uneasy. Think Madame Tussaud’s or the weird Duracell battery people from the 1990s commercial. Ted, the lovable human-like bear, created by Seth MacFarlane, works as a comedy character because he is far enough from looking human that we think it is funny and cute when he does human (and very adult) things. Up to a point, we prefer human-like traits in robots until the unreal bot-being becomes almost indistinguishable from humans.

The Psychology of Clowns

Clowns sometimes fall into the uncanny valley – so close to being human but just a touch off. They might not be totally creepy all the time, but they certainly are a little bit off. Social panics over the past 30 years included stranger danger, satanic cults, daycare abuse of children, and even the “discovery” of repressed memories in adults in the 1980s and 1990s, supposedly indicating prior abuse by family members years earlier. Add to this list scary clown sightings. Most of the reports in this list were greatly exaggerated. Of course, there are cults, abuse, etc., but these incidents were reaching epic levels at their peak. A similar pattern is playing out with clowns.

This is Something New, But Also Really Old

Remember in the fall of 2016 when clown sightings went viral? Will the world see a repeat of the great clown scare of 2016 anytime soon? It could go either way, depending on a few factors. The runaway success of Stephen King’s It could serve as the necessary cultural catalyst, reviving the social clown panic all over again. On the other hand, the novelty of “clown as terrorizer” may have reached a cultural tipping point. In other words, clowns may not be all that cool.

Clowns occupy an interesting niche in our society today. On the one hand, there is an appreciation for the historically funny/goofy/friendly clown associated more with previous eras in American history (think circuses, birthday parties, Ronald McDonald and Bozo). On the other hand, there has always been a sinister element to the clown personality, and horror movies and TV have exploited it to the point where I’m not sure that millennials and Gen Z even connect clowns with innocence and fun, smiles or no smiles.

©2022 Kevin Bennett Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Ekman, Paul (1993). "Facial Expression and Emotion". American Psychologist. 48 (4): 384–92. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.4.384. PMID 8512154.

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