The origin of smiling, laughing, and crying: The defensive mimic theory

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Why do we leak lubricant from the eyes to solicit comfort from others? Why do we bare our teeth and crinkle our faces to express non-Aggression? The defensive mimic theory proposes that a broad range of human emotional expressions evolved originally as exaggerated, temporally extended mimics of the fast, defensive reflexes that normally protect the body surface. Defensive reflexes are so important to survival that they cannot be safely suppressed; yet they also broadcast information about an animal's internal state, information that can potentially be exploited by other animals. Once others can observe and exploit an animal's defensive reflexes, it may be advantageous to the animal to run interference by creating mimic defensive actions, thereby manipulating the behaviour of others. Through this interaction over millions of years, many human emotional expressions may have evolved. Here, human social signals including smiling, laughing and crying, are compared component-by-component with the known, well-studied features of primate defensive reflexes. It is suggested that the defensive mimic theory can adequately account for the physical form of not all, but a large range of, human emotional expression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
StatePublished - Mar 3 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Applied Psychology


  • Emotional expression
  • crying
  • laughter
  • peripersonal space
  • smile
  • startle reflex


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