Do women's yearbook photos predict their future happiness? Depends what you mean by "happy."

Illustration for article titled Do women's yearbook photos predict their future happiness? Depends what you mean by "happy."

If you're a woman, your old yearbook photos could predict whether you'll have a happy life. At least, that's what one study found — until you drill a bit deeper. Because it turns out the researchers were using a pretty narrow definition of "a happy life."

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According to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a woman's facial expression in her college yearbook picture can be used to predict her overall success and sense of satisfaction in life. But as you might have suspected, the researchers' testing conditions leave much to be desired, and raise some important questions.

In the study, the researchers identify a strong correlation between a woman's positive facial expression in her college yearbook photo, and what they describe as her "personality stability and development across adulthood"; the "impressions and reactions" she elicited from other people; and her "marital satisfaction and personal well-being up to 30 years later;" the overall conclusion being that "unhappy yearbook photos herald unhappier lives," as the good folks over at NCBI ROFL put it in a post yesterday.

But how exactly did the the researchers determine "personal well being" so they could correlate it with the women's emotional expressions in their year books? Turns out they took the liberty of identifying which of the 114 women who participated in the study had gotten married, and the ages at which they got hitched. The researchers write:

Positive emotional expression in the year-book pictures was expected to predict future marital status. Consistent with this expectation, women displaying more positive emotion were more likely to be married by age 27 and were less likely to remain single into middle adulthood.

The nature of the researchers' hypothesis, and the experimental conditions established to test it, suggest that the age at which a woman marries — if she marries at all — is linked to her personal stability and development. (It's worth noting that 27 was not an average, but rather a benchmark used by the researchers to determine whether the women had married later than their peers. Nowhere in the study do the authors explain why 27 years of age was chosen as a reference point.)

Taken together with the other experimental categories (which, you'll recall, sought to quantify personality stability & development across adulthood, as well as the impressions and reactions elicited from other people), the researchers seem to imply that women who exhibit an outward display of positive emotion are more likely to find enduring happiness (in marriage, mind you) than their less sparkly-eyed peers.

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But can the age at which a woman decides to marry (again, if she marries at all) really be used to gauge whether she has achieved a "favorable" outcome along her "life trajectory," as the researchers suggest? Given that a similar study, conducted in 1996 using photos of West Point graduates, found smiling to be a negative predictor of favorable life-outcome in men ("favorable," in this instance, being quantified by the equally dubious criteria of "higher military attainment" and "having more children"), should studies like these not also account for factors like alternative relationships, or just focusing on your career in your twenties?

And what ever happened to the good old single life?

The point of all these questions is to say that in a study such as this, examining the correlation between a woman's facial expression and various aspects of her life is one thing (yes, women with cheery facial expressions in their yearbook photos tended to report greater overall senses of personal well-being; and yes, strangers tended to describe women with warmer facial expressions as possessing more "positive emotionality and competence"), but to actively identify something like marriage (or, more specifically, marriage by a certain age), as a "favorable" outcome along her "life trajectory" is another thing entirely.

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The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology via NCBI ROFL
Top image via Kirsten Smith/Shutterstock and here

DISCUSSION

szielins
Stephan Zielinski

Link to actual paper: [education.ucsb.edu]

Harker and Keltner did compute the correlation between having a "positive emotional expression" and being married at 27, yes. (By the way, see the "Method" section for an explanation of where 27 came from.) However, simply being married at all wasn't what they characterized as "favorable". They also computed correlations with "marital satisfaction" and "marital tension." The relevant correlation coefficients from Table 5:

Marital satisfaction

Age 43 (n = 79) .00

Age 52 (n = 71) .20 (p < .10)

Marital tensions

Age 27 (n = 66) -.15

Age 52 (n = 65) -.20

Of those, only marital satisfaction at age 52 is strong enough to be statistically significant (at p < .10), but the other numbers are suggestive.

More importantly, the actual line in the abstract is "Finally, positive emotional expression predicted favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being up to 30 years later.", and other parts of Table 5 are nailing down the (considerably stronger) correlations between "positive emotional expression" and personal well-being:

Personal Well-being (CPI scale)

Age 21 (n = 112) .20 (p < .05)

Age 27 (n = 86) .25 (p < .05)

Age 43 (n = 105) .18 (p < .10)

Age 52 (n = 101) .27 (p < .01)

LeeAnne Harker and Dacher Keltner are hardly pipe-puffing male academics fallen through a time warp from the set of Mad Men. Your inferred narrative is way off base.