Should you aim to be like Julia Roberts or Clint Eastwood?
Just before every performance, whether it's in sports, music, or in the workplace, there's a quiet moment just before the action starts. It's the deep breath before the leap, the moment when all the preparation is finished, and you're waiting to start, and there's nothing on earth you can do.
Or is there?
According to some fascinating new research, you should smile.
I know, it sounds like advice from a fifties musical, but in fact it's a useful bit of neuroscience, courtesy of Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Here's why: our brains are made up of two parallel systems, the Fast and the Slow. The Fast System works by instinct; it's our intuitive autopilot, and used for swift, simple decisions. The Slow System, on the other hand, is for being rational and calculating; it takes more effort to use, and helps us work through complicated problems. Research by Kahneman and his colleagues revealed the systems are activated by, among other factors, our facial expressions.
Here's the freaky part: your expression matters even if you don't feel the underlying emotion. To create a smile, subjects were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth. To create a frown, researchers asked subjects to furrow their brows, which causes the face to take on a natural downturn. In each case, the facial expression drove the resulting behaviour; that is, smiling made people behave in swifter, more intuitive ways, while frowning caused them to be more deliberate and rational.
Perhaps there's some deep evolutionary explanation for all this involving expressions and survival. But when I read this, I thought of all the frowning, ultra-serious faces I see among the elite performers I have been lucky enough to work with. Their expressions sometimes resemble Clint Eastwood's 'Dirty Harry' look. Considering this research, perhaps that makes sense. For practicing, go with the Eastwood face. But in the last second before you perform, it's smarter to aim for Julia Roberts's pearly smile.