Sometimes the most fascinating psychological findings are also the most frustrating.
The latest evidence of that phenomenon is a paper that suggests people who seem really happy also seem more naive than people who seem just a little bit happy.
Fascinating because, well, who knew? And frustrating because it can be hard to gauge whether you've crossed the line into "very-happy" territory every time you flash a smile or make small talk with a coworker.
The researchers — Alixandra Barasch, Emma E. Levine, and Maurice E. Schweitzer — came to their conclusions after conducting a series of studies to test the link between the magnitude of positive emotions people display and others' perceptions of them.
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Previous research had found that people often get to a state of happiness by suppressing negative thoughts, and that happy people tend to be more trusting of others. In other words, happy people may wear rose-colored glasses, filtering out potentially important negative information from their field of vision. The researchers behind the current study wanted to know if people are on some level aware of this phenomenon, and if they see very happy individuals as naive.
In the first study, university students evaluated another student's survey (the researchers had actually made up the survey results), in which the survey respondent had indicated how they typically feel and how they feel about life in general, on a scale of 1 to 11. Sure enough, when the researchers asked participants to rate the survey respondent on naiveté, those who displayed high levels of happiness were judged as more naive than those who displayed moderate levels of happiness.
Interestingly, students who displayed moderate levels of happiness were perceived as slightly less naive than students who were neutral — although this result wasn't statistically significant.
Follow-up studies suggests that the reason participants judged very happy people as more naive was that happy people supposedly processed negative events superficially and managed to avoid unpleasant information. Again, those rose-colored glasses.
The real problem here is what people do with the idea that their very happy friends and coworkers are more naive and gullible. In another follow-up study, participants were more likely to choose as their negotiation partner an individual who was very happy (grinning and looking a little goofy in a headshot) than individuals who were moderately happy (smiling). Presumably, it would be easier to take advantage of the very happy individual.
In yet another follow-up study, participants were more likely to give individuals who reported being very happy biased advice about the amount of money in a jar, so that the individuals would guess wrong. That's likely because they perceived the very happy individuals as more naive, and therefore easy to dupe.
As for the real-life implications of these findings, the researchers say that salespeople, for example, should be wary of looking too happy, or else customers might see them as less knowledgeable and ill-equipped to deal with complaints. Even leaders, the researchers say, might want to dial down their display of happiness so they don't seem exploitable or ineffective.
The key question here is whether people's perceptions of very-happy individuals are accurate — but that's a topic for another study.
As for now, the main takeaway is that there does seem to be a limit to how much you can benefit from looking happy. If your M.O. is to smile like a maniac every time you encounter a coworker or a client, consider toning it down. Same goes for answering "Awesome!!!" when asked how you're doing — a simple "well, thanks" should suffice.
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