There may be some truth in an age-old adage like “grin and bear it", or in Charles Gordy’s quote, “A smile is an inexpensive way of improving one’s looks".

While smiles may not exactly reduce wrinkles, they are definitely good stress busters, as psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas, US, showed in their study in Psychological Science—a journal of the Association for Psychological Science—in 2012.

A smile, researchers now say, can do a lot more.

It can, for instance, boost chances of getting a micro loan, say Stanford University researchers who found that applicants for micro loans are more likely to win approval if the photograph sent along with the application evokes a positive emotional response.

The brain’s emotional mechanism—“affect", or the experience of feeling or emotion—seems to play a key role in micro-lending decisions, according to a study published on 17 July in Psychological Science. The research, published by Brian Knutson, an associate professor of psychology, and Alexander Genevsky, a doctoral student in psychology, combined big data and neuroimaging on the topic of micro finance, which entails offering financial services to low-income groups or those who do not have access to traditional banking services.

Knutson and Genevsky examined more than 13,000 micro-loan requests—both successful and unsuccessful—from Kiva, an online US-based non-profit organization that networks with micro-finance institutions across the world.

For the neuroimaging part of the study, the researchers reviewed the brain activity of 28 people as they chose whether to lend money or not. The participants looked at images of potential borrowers and read their loan requests before deciding whether to give them a loan. The researchers demonstrated that positive emotions like excitement rather than negative emotions like guilt seem to drive lending decisions.

The images that prompted the highest positive emotional reaction resulted in the highest rate of lending. Applicants whose photographs prompted the highest negative arousal were the least successful in garnering loans.

The researchers noted that the area of the brain that was studied—the nucleus accumbens—is connected to motivation, pleasure and reward processing. Activity in these regions is also associated with charitable actions.

Knutson and Genevsky believe it is possible that positive affect increases risk-taking—including giving to a needy stranger, as in the case of micro finance. They believe their research is important to society because it offers a “best practices" approach to creating effective requests for financial aid, and helps to explain the rapid rise and popularity of Internet micro-lending platforms.

For example, the research highlights how the design of loan requests may critically influence success in unintended ways that are not predicted by traditional economic theory. For those making loan requests, the study showed that relatively minor changes to the requests, such as presenting a clear and smiling image, can greatly determine success or failure.

Major changes, like carefully crafting an English-language narrative or asking for less money, do not appear to be that important. The study suggested that “neuroforecasting" is also possible. Brain activity in a group of lab participants as they looked at a loan application seemed to be more accurate in predicting whether the loan would be approved in the real world than the conscious choices they made after viewing the application.

Over the years, researchers have tried to prove how, or why, human beings react to actions like smiles or gestures.

But it was a little over five years back that researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), US, proved the existence of mirror neurons, or cells in the brain, that fire not only when we perform a particular action but also when we watch someone else perform that same action.

Itzhak Fried, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery, psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences, Roy Mukamel, a postdoctoral fellow in Fried’s lab, and colleagues for the first time made a direct recording of mirror neurons in the human brain. The findings were reported in April 2010 in the Current Biology journal.

The researchers noted that because mirror neurons fire both when an individual performs an action and when one watches another individual perform that same action, this “mirroring" is the neural mechanism by which the actions, intentions and emotions of other people can be automatically understood.

Cutting Edge is a monthly column that explores the melding of science and technology.

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