Human Flower Project

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Friday, April 29, 2005

The Duchenne Smile

Four psychologists put flowers to the test, and find blossoms induce “powerful positive emotions.”

imageA true smile

from Mrs. Enoeda

Photo: Karate Union of Great Britain

Are flowers trying to get in good with us humans in order to survive?

That’s one premise coming out of an interesting new study led by Rutgers University psychologist Jeanette Haviland-Jones, now published in Evolutionary Psychology.

Haviland-Jones and her team performed three experiments to test the impact of flowers on emotion and memory. (By the way, the study was partly funded by the Society of American Florists.)

In their first study, they tested short and longer term mood shifts of women who were given a “mixed flower bouquet (including roses, lilies and stocks).” Other research subjects, poor dears, received, “a fruit and sweets basket” or “a large multi-wicked (?) candle.” Researchers were first looking for “The Duchene Smile,” that smile that scrunches not just the cheeks but the eyes, and represents, for experimental psychologists, “a reliable indicator of happiness.”

While all the gifts elicited smiles—as, we learn, will most any surprise that’s not a stick in the eye— 100% of the women who received bouquets came through with the “Duchenne smile” and showed “longer term increase in positive mood,” too.

Of equal interest to us, the researchers also found that flower-getters were more likely to situate their gifts “in communal spaces” –  suggesting, as we believe, that flowers are socially charged, rather than just personal pleasures.

imageKing Gustaf V of Sweden

receiving flowers on his 85th birthday

Photo: World Roots

In the second experiment, people were handed a Gerber daisy or a pen or nothing in an elevator. Both men and women who received flowers “were more likely to smile, to stand at a social distance rather than at an impersonal distance and to initiate conversation.” When was the last time you cozied up to someone who handed you a pen?

An intriguing part of this experiment, given short shrift in the article, was that some research subjects simply rode the elevator with a person carrying flowers but weren’t offered a blossom. Much to their credit, two of these folks ogled the flowers, got off the elevator, then got back on and asked if they could have flowers. To heck with the Duchenne Smile. How about the “Buster Clutch”? Get this pair back to the lab for further study!

imageSister Concepta with flowers

Photo: Notre Dame High School, Sheffield

Study three tested whether receiving flowers might improve the memories and sociability of elderly people. It found “participants who received…flowers had higher scores” on a memory task. This experiment, while interesting, seemed least convincing to me.  As the great Marcel Mauss taught us long ago, there’s no such thing as a “free gift.” Receiving a gift sets up an obligation.

In other words, research subjects who had gotten flowers would feel more inclined to play along with the study, exerting themselves in the researchers’ rather tedious tests of memory. Those who hadn’t been cajoled with flowers very reasonably might have dissed the experiment.

It’s not possible to do justice to this interesting study in such a short summary, so check it out in full. Fans of Michael Pollen’s book The Botany of Desire will especially enjoy Dr. Haviland-Jones’s research, as it tries to extend some of Pollen’s fascinating ideas of plant-animal co-evolution—in an elevator, no less.

Posted by Julie on 04/29 at 05:02 PM
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