12/09/2014 05:43 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Why We Say Cheese When Posing for Pictures

Marvin Fox via Getty Images

Whether it's "cheese," "peace," or "Milwaukee," there's a common thread to the cue that photographers use to prod smiles from their subjects. The word needs to end with emphasis on the hard E sound.

The fact that smiling is basically required when clearly enunciating a word that ends with the hard E sound is worth consideration beyond one-time photo shoots.

In a new paper published in Marketing Letters, I present three studies with co-author Mitsuru Shimizu where we look at preferences and effects for names that end with the hard E sound (e.g., Mary, Jenny, Casey, and Manny).

In the first study, we presented a sample of business students in the US with names that are popular elsewhere in the world but unfamiliar here - Tomi, Akami, and Ramsi. We then asked participants for ratings of those names but varied the pronunciation so that the contrasts were TO-MEYE versus TO-MEEE, Aka-MEYE versus Aka-MEEE and so on.

We found that participants were more inclined to be actively helpful for people whose names ended in the EEE sound.

Why might that be case?

Previous researchers have shown that if you force someone to smile by asking them to chew on a chopstick or pencil for a minute, the person is significantly more likely to be in a good mood.

Asking people to chew on chopsticks or pencils, though, obviously gets in the way of everyday living.

What if names - for products and companies just as much as people - might provide a mechanism to get the same general effect?

Partly complementing the findings from Study 1, the second study of our new paper finds that - for women but not for men - there is generally a higher preference for words that end in the hard E sound.

And, on a related question, Study 3 of the new paper asked college students to remember how often they called their parents Mommy or Mom and Daddy or Dad as a function of whether or not they were asking for a favor. Surprisingly, there doesn't appear to have been any previous systematic study of these contrasts - and so, our study, which is based on recall, scratches that surface.

Unsurprising to parents of young children, we find partial evidence that fits with the rest of the hard E findings. Specifically, we find that women recall using Mommy and Daddy when soliciting help from their parents (as children) whereas men in our sample did not indicate any difference in the names they called their parents.

Our findings raise as many questions as it does answers (e.g., whether or not these patterns apply in non-English-speaking communities and whether people whose names end in the hard E sound are happier and healthier).

As those questions get chewed upon, though, we can safely conclude from the new research that biting on chopsticks and pencils might have a real-world analog that facilitates good moods and cooperation in a much more naturalistic way.