Via Daniel H. Lee and Adam K. Anderson, PhDOur eyes may be the window to our soul, but they also influence how others see us. New research, published last month in Psychological Science, reveals that we interpret the emotional state of others by the way their eyes look.
For the study, led by Daniel H. Lee of the University of Colorado Boulder and Adam K. Anderson, PhD, of Cornell University, participants completed 600 trials in which they were presented with a photograph of a pair of eyes from widely used databases (each representing one of six common expressions: sadness, disgust, anger, joy, fear, and surprise) together with a word representing a specific mental state. The participants then rated the extent to which the mental state described the eye expression.
Following analysis of how these mental state perceptions related to specific eye features, such as the openness of the eye, the distance from the eyebrow to the eye, the slope and curve of the eyebrow, and wrinkles around the nose, the temple, and below the eye, the researchers found that the eyes really do convey a great deal of information about a person’s emotional state.
Participants consistently matched the eye expressions with the corresponding basic emotion, such as rating “fear” as a strong match for the fear eye expression higher than other mental states paired with the same eye expression.
“It’s an evolution/co-evolution story,” Lee tells Reader’s Digest. “Opening your eyes wider enhances visual sensitivity. Narrowing them enhances visual discrimination.” The upshot: Wider eyes seem to convey mental states of sensitivity and narrower eyes seem to convey discrimination, suspicion, or scrutiny.
Via Daniel H. Lee and Adam K. Anderson, PhDThe analysis revealed four distinct clusters, two of which connected to eye-narrowing and eye-widening features. The eye-narrowing cluster aligned with mental states related to social discrimination, such as aggressiveness, contempt, hate and suspicion. The eye-widening cluster was associated with mental states related to information sensitivity, including awe, anticipation, cowardice, and interest. The link between these two clusters and eye widening and narrowing was one of most surprising findings from the study.
“Human expressions are highly complex—when counting our facial muscles, we computed that there are at least 3.7 x 1016 different expression combinations, which is about the same probabilistic space as two Powerball jackpots,” says Lee. “We looked at a subset of this space—just the eye region—and found that one simple physical dimension (widening vs. narrowing) explained a majority of this complex space in social communication.”
The other two clusters included eye features that aligned with positive mental states like admiration, and negative mental states like uneasiness.
A second study, when photographs were shown of the eyes embedded in an entire face, with the lower-face features not portraying the same expression as the eyes, confirmed that the eyes really do say it all when it comes to providing strong emotional signals.