The Eyes Have It

To all primates body language is important and many animals signal their intentions. Our dogs are exceptionally good at reading our faces. But even when we are attempting to be poker faced, can we really keep our thoughts to ourselves?

This is just the sort of questions that delight our psychologist friends, especially when they have a handy group of undergraduates to take the role of lab rat for a day.

Now Terburg et al in last week’s Public Library of Science reported on the happy/angry face game. The eye movements of the students were recorded electronically while watching a TV display. A series of actors were shown in video with a blank expression and then they switched to a happy or angry face, but here comes the fun. The actor’s eyes shifted during the stimulus to look in a particular direction.

As we all do in such circumstances, the student’s gaze shifted to look in the same direction as the actors. Then the actor’s picture vanished and a target showed up on the screen. The time taken for the students to switch their gaze to look at the target was the critical factor rich in information, just waiting to be mined.

Angry gaze means a threat of some sort and emotional effects of gaze change time can be surmised from that information. Happy faces elicit better possibilities, but again gaze change time is important.

The results indicated that the students shifted the direction of their gaze faster to follow the direction of a possible threat and were more sluggish in checking out what caused the happy face. This confirmed earlier work and makes sense in survival terms, so what’s new here?

The shift time back to look at a target is different. Coming back from the happy direction took longer than coming back from the angry one. This was indicative of anxiety and the need for reassurance, like checking that all was well in other directions thus seeing which direction to head for.

Clearly, seeing the whites of their eyes provides critical information. I think that if I’m going to take up poker, I shall have to wear sunglasses.


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