Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

Smiles better: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer need to learn from Boris Johnson's affiliative smile that wowed voters

New research has found that the type of smile used by a political leader can influence voters to support them and their political agenda. 

There are many different types of smile, and the researchers - Nick Lee, Professor of Marketing at Warwick Business School, Carl Senior, of Aston University, Patrick Stewart, of the University of Arkansas, and Erik Bucy, of Texas Tech University - focused on two in particular, the ‘reward’ and the ‘affiliative’ smile.

They used videos from political leaders from the 2019 UK general election, which was won by the Conservative party, then led by Boris Johnson. The Labour party, then led by Jeremy Corbyn, came second, while Jo Swinson was the leader of the third-placed Liberal Democrat party. 

The ‘reward’ smile is the genuine smile, or felt smile, associated with joy and enthusiasm. They say smiling is contagious and the reward smile is the one most likely to do this. It has also been linked to higher levels of trust.

The ‘affiliative’ smile, meanwhile, communicates approachability, acknowledgement, and appeasement. It is associated with an affinity towards the onlooker and is thought to be important for developing co-operative relationships. 

The researchers selected volunteers professing to be supporters of each of the three main parties and showed them the same video footage of the three leaders – Johnson, Corbyn and Swinson – before and after the 2019 election. The team assessed the emotional response to the different grins for the candidates, whether positive (happiness and affinity) or negative (anger and distress). 

When shown footage of winner Johnson’s affiliative smile after the election, people in all groups showed an increase in happiness and affinity compared to when they were shown the footage before the voting began.

Supporters of the losing parties showed an overall decrease in the negative effect. It was only this affiliative smile that was found to act as a mechanism to align voter feelings and behaviour to the dominant, or winning, political message.  

The reward smile did not have the same effect. Supporters of Labour showed an increased level of anger and distress when viewing Johnson’s reward smile after the election compared to before it.

The effects for Corbyn and Swinson were less marked, showing that they failed to significantly change voters’ responses to them and make them feel good with the act of smiling.

Their appeal was somewhat fixed and failed to match Johnson’s simple smile. Johnson tapped into the voters’ feeling of annoyance about the slow Brexit process with his ‘Get Brexit done’ slogan, while Corbyn’s position was ambiguous. Swinson’s party was pro-Europe but lacked Johnson’s performative abilities to link a strong message to his non-verbal communication, including his happy facial expression.  

How politicians can perfect the perfect grin

Previous work by various researchers has shown that observers judge leadership traits and behaviour, or a lack thereof, from non-verbal cues such as facial expressions. However, there has, until now, been little research outside the US on the effect of people who smile on voter behaviour.   

Professor Lee said: “The individual appeal of party leaders has become increasingly influential. A smile can’t win an election on its own, but Johnson’s personal appeal transcended party policies, connecting with people who had not planned to vote for him.  

“The upside for today’s politicians is that charisma is not an innate quality. It can be taught. This study has shown that smiling is important and by paying attention to their facial behaviour and ensuring they display the right smile in the right context, politcians can still leverage the power of emotional responses. In fact, it is something leaders of all organisations can learn.” 

Dr Senior said: “The human smile can convey both rewarding and affiliative social intent and thus has significant utility in politics, where the ability to bond with and reassure voters is vital to electoral success.

"We are in an unprecedented year as there are numerous elections scheduled to take place across several continents. The outcome of these campaigns will have a significant impact on millions of people across vast geopolitical regions. Given that almost all politicians involved in these election campaigns will make full use of broadcast media to reach voters, it is crucial to understand the effectiveness of their non-verbal displays in shifting voting preference.” 

The researchers say more work is required to understand how smiles work together with other verbal and non-verbal displays to generate affinity in voters and convey social dominance to other leaders.  

Further reading:

How smiling can help leaders

Does the sound of words affect our emotions?

How to build a more ethical team


Nick Lee is Professor of Marketing and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management (JPSSM), and a Founding Fellow of the Institute for Sales Professionals. He teaches Marketing on the Global Online MBA and Global Online MBA (London).

Learn more about leadership on the four-day Executive Education programme Leading People Through Change and Disruption | Leadership Pathways at WBS London at The Shard.

For more articles on Leadership sign up to Core Insights.