England, Regiment of Life, 1545
“Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter).”
“Les yeux sont le miroir de l’ame (The eyes are the mirror of the soul).”
In a recent post I suggested that a man’s eyes will pretty much tell you what you need to know about him:
You can learn a lot about a man by looking at his eyes. Are they alive or flat? Cold or warm? Do they convey expression? Amusement? Are there crow’s feet at the edges that are the mark of a man who smiles and laughs? What do his eyes say about his intent?
Looking back, every guy you ever went out with told you everything you needed to know with his eyes, without saying a word.
Although some commenters agreed that they have found eyes a reliable indicator of a person’s true intent, personality or character, most felt that my advice was of limited value, and possibly even misleading. Knowing that I have relied on this assessment with good results, I set out to find out what science says about what our eyes reveal to others.
One of the strongest impressions I had of my husband the first time I saw him was of his crow’s feet. They seemed to radiate interest, empathy and some amusement to the person he was speaking with. I found this almost unspeakably attractive. (This was no doubt aided by the fact that his eyes are the color of the Caribbean sea.)
It turns out that when people smile with genuine engagement and warmth, the eye muscles are involved and the smile extends over the whole face. In contrast, a smile that is not genuine, but manufactured, does not engage the eye muscles and involves only the lower half of the face. In observing his crow’s feet, already pronounced at the age of 27, I was gathering information about the authenticity of his smile not only with his conversation partner, but in general. That kickstarted a very strong desire to know him.
It turns out there are many interesting facts about how human beings communicate and perceive one other with their eyes. (Note: Most of this will apply primarily to western culture.)
1. A study headed by Stephen Janik and Rodney Wellens at the University of Miami in Florida found that 43.4 percent of the attention we focus on someone is devoted to their eyes. Here are some of the phrases we use to describe people’s motives based on their eyes alone:
- twinkly or sparkly eyes
- lying eyes
- Bette Davis eyes, bedroom eyes
- evil eye
- kind eyes
- dead eyes
- eyes glazed over
- puppy dog eyes
2. Blue eyes have only been around for 6,000 – 10,000 years. All blue-eyed people are descended from one common ancestor who had a genetic mutation, which prevented the production of brown pigment. Blue is generally voted the most attractive eye color, which probably reflects its relative scarcity in the population.
However, studies have shown that women deem brown-eyed males more trustworthy. Still, 20-40% of Europeans now have blue eyes, suggesting that blue-eyed people have reproduced very successfully in a short time.
3. “A study finds that guys with an open, normal gaze are preferred for a long-term relationship by women and as a business partner or neighbor by men. Women and men alike perceived the eyes-half-closed look as an attempt to secure a fling rather than a long-term relationship. Unfortunately, the look didn’t give those much of an edge: Men with a wider-eyed look were ranked as more attractive even for a brief affair.”
The researchers believe that because a wide-eyed appearance signifies youth, “sketchy” men use a heavy-lidded gaze to convey maturity and sexual readiness.
4. Blink rate can reveal how nervous or at ease a person may be. In presidential debates, the faster blinker has lost every election since 1980.
5. Scientists used to believe that a darting gaze was a giveaway of deceit. However, that theory has been debunked. It’s now understood that most people will look left or right when considering what to say. In fact, it’s the people whose gaze never wavers who you should probably suspect most. Practiced liars are very good at the “poker face.” Alder Vrij and others have found that liars tend to engage in greater eye contact because they know we are looking there for signs of deception. People who are conscious of the image they project, like politicians and cads, tend to be good liars.
6. One of the first signs of arousal is dilated pupils. It is not unusual for a person to have dilated pupils throughout a period of courtship. Advertisers use this to their advantage, photoshopping in larger pupils in most photo ads.
7. A squint or narrowing of the eyes means suspicion or disbelief (the Clint Eastwood Effect). People are often unaware they’re doing this, so you can use that information to provide reassurance when needed.
8. People raise their eyebrows when they want to be clearly understood. It signals congeniality and a desire to get along.
9. Women use time-tested eye moves during courtship:
- Women pluck their eyebrows higher up their forehead because it makes us look more helpless and this actually releases hormones in a man’s brain to protect and defend the female.
- Women tend to raise their eyebrows and lower their lids to give the look of orgasming. (Think Marilyn Monroe)
- Looking up and to the side is a ‘come hither’ look from a woman to a man.
- Gazing at someone often engages their attention and encourages them to like you in return.
- Researcher Monika Moore found that men often miss a women’s first eye-gazing courtship signal. On average, she needs to do it three times before the man takes notice.
- A sideways glance over a raised shoulder highlights curves, the roundness of the female face–which signifies estrogen and exposes the vulnerability and pheromones of the neck. A great move for women trying to flirt.
I’ve also written about eye contact in How to Flirt Effectively.
10. There are three types of gazing:
- Social: Ranges from eyes to mouth, shows comfort and is not aggressive.
- Intimate: Ranges from eyes to mouth to lower body.
- Power: Strictly focused on the eyes and forehead.
Women playing hard-to-get substitute social gazing for intimate gazing.
11. A sideways glance is a gesture of uncertainty, but if one raises one’s eyebrows while doing this, it is a sign of romantic interest.
12. Darting eyes always indicate insecurity – the person is looking for a means of escape.
13. Eye contact norms vary a great deal not only by country, but by subcultures. The social convention for acceptable eye contact in New York City is only 1.68 seconds. Ten seconds is enough time to be very disconcerting just about everywhere.
14. When we’re angry with someone we often avoid eye contact. “Talk to the hand!” or “I can’t even look at you right now.”
15. People who are rich or high status tend to exhibit more distraction and less eye contact. Looking away from someone during a conversation is a way of expressing your superiority.
16. Men stare more than women, and they use eye contact to mark status and dominance. Women use eye contact to read another person, bond, and communicate submission.
Tips for Effective Eye Contact
17. People are wary of initiating eye contact due to the risk of rejection. However, studies show that once one person initiates, the other person often welcomes the engagement and reciprocates.
18. If you make eye contact with someone and they do not engage to make it mutual, cease. Continuing to look at someone after they’ve looked away moves the behavior from gazing to staring, and staring makes people uncomfortable. This is generally referred to as “creepy.” Most of the men I’ve called creepy in my life were people who stared at me for way too long. This is bad enough on the street, but there is almost nothing worse than looking up to see your cubicle mate doing it again.
19. Practice making eye contact with strangers to get comfortable with it. Then make a point of initiating eye contact with every single person you find attractive. It doesn’t matter if they are taken, too young, too old, or otherwise inappropriate. Eye contact is a friendly gesture that simply says you like what you see. Don’t forget: a man may need three separate glances to read your message.
20. Guys should use the following cheat sheet to interpret a woman’s eye contact:
- If she looks down and then back, she’s definitely interested.
- If she breaks eye contact, and looks to the side, she’s uncertain.
- If she looks up, consider it an eye roll and move on.
For some people the ability to look into another person’s soul (and read it) comes more easily than for others. But it’s a valuable skill and one that can be improved with practice. It can help you lose the losers, win the winners, and know when you stand a fighting chance.
For more information, one excellent book is The power of Eye Contact by Michael Ellsberg.