Working paper

Smiling is a Costly Signal of Cooperation Opportunities: Experimental Evidence from a Trust Game

Samuele Centorrino, Elodie Djemaï, Astrid Hopfensitz, Manfred Milinski, and Paul Seabright


We test the hypothesis that "genuine" or "convincing" smiling is a costly signal that has evolved to induce cooperation in situations requiring mutual trust. Potential trustees in a trust game made video clips for viewing by potential trusters before the latter decided whether to send them money. Ratings of the genuineness of smiles vary across clips; it is difficult to make convincing smiles to order. We argue that smiling convincingly is costly, because smiles from trustees playing for higher stakes are rated as significantly more convincing, so that rewards appear to induce effort. We show that it induces cooperation: smiles rated as more convincing strongly predict judgments about the trustworthiness of trustees, and willingness to send them money. Finally, we show that it is a honest signal: those smiling convincingly return more money on average to senders. Convincing smiles are to some extent a signal of the intrinsic character of trustees: less honest individuals find smiling convincingly more difficult. They are also informative about the greater amounts that trustees playing for higher stakes have available to share: it is harder to smile convincingly if you have less to offer.

See also

Published in

TSE Working Paper, n. 11-231, April 2011