Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

Why the Eyes Always Have It

New research reveals the remarkable power of the human gaze.

Posted Apr 14, 2013

Anatol Misnikou/Shutterstock
Source: Anatol Misnikou/Shutterstock

In the world of marketing and advertisement, there is a golden rule: If you promote a new product you should show it in the presence of an attractive role model, be it a fashion model, Hollywood star, or sports personality. What marketing specialists do not always appreciate, though, is something we can pick up with an eye tracker machine: When an audience watches a commercial, their eyes are pretty much focused the entire time on the attractive model but not on the product. Memory tests support this: The public remembers who was in the commercial but they cannot remember which product they were promoting. What works much better is to have the attractive model look in the direction of the product—then, suddenly most people will remember what the product is about.

This demonstrates the power of an underappreciated source of social influence—the eyes.

We humans have a strong tendency to follow the gaze of another human being. Gazing and gaze following are important aspects of leadership and followership in humans, increasingly recognized by the scientific community. German biology professor Klaus Zuberbuehler of St. Andrews University in Scotland wrote a concise review of the literature on gaze following in humans and nonhumans.1

Gaze following starts very early. Babies only three months old already follow the gaze of adults. At nine month, they not only look in the direction of where their mom or dad is looking, but they also look back at them for confirmation that they are both looking at the same thing. This joint attention seeking is the foundation of theory of mind and cooperation in humans.2

Interestingly, chimpanzees also follow the gaze of the dominant individuals in their group, but they do not usually engage in joint attention. Because the chimpanzee world is a highly competitive, Machiavellian world it usually pays to not confirm to the other chimp that you are both looking at the same thing—it might be prized food or a receptive female for which you will have to compete with each other. Better to hide your intentions.

This is much easier to do for chimpanzees than for humans because of a critical evolutionary difference in the way our eyes are designed. In humans, a large part of the eye consists of white areas, the sclera. Look at the eyes of any other primate species and you do not see the same amount of white. As a result, for chimps it is much harder to determine in which direction they are looking, as if chimps permanently wear sunglasses. (This is more than an analogy. We humans put sunglasses on if we have something to hide. That’s why you see often see professional poker players wearing them.)

The logic of this difference between humans and chimpanzees, as has been speculated, is that, for us, collaboration and leadership are so crucial that it has led to differences in the way our eyes are designed—the “cooperative eyes” hypothesis.

So whose eyes do we follow? Group membership matters. An Italian election study found that right-wing voters were more likely to follow the gaze of right-wing politicians than that of left-wing politicians. Further, a U.S. study showed that white participants follow the gaze of white models more than black models, but black participants followed the gaze of white and black models equally. Status matters, too: Cognitive scientists have found that the higher your status in a group, the more likely people are to look at you and follow your gaze. Status among humans is based on either competence or dominance, and the gaze of both experts and dominants attract more followers.

So when are we more likely to follow the gaze of a dominant person? In a recent study by Garian Ohlsen and Wieske van Zoest at the VU University Amsterdam, published in the open access journal, PLOS-One, we studied participants’ reactions when they were confronted with either the face of a dominant male or the face of a non-dominant female on the screen of a computer. (We used Alex Todorov's facebase.) These faces were either looking toward a target stimulus or away from a target stimulus. We then measured the extent to which they followed the eye gaze of the male or female face. Importantly, prior to this task we manipulated the context of the task by showing the participants either pictures of dangerous situations (graphic displays of car accidents, crimes, and war) or pictures of safe situations (babies smiling, couples holding hands). In the safe situation, our participants followed the gaze of the male and female faces to the same extent. Yet when there was danger, they only followed the gaze of the male face and no longer followed the female face. We interpret these results in terms of an evolutionary benefit of knowing where a dominant individual is looking in times of danger as the dominant individual might give you some security and protection.

If gaze following reflects a primitive form of leadership, could this explain deeply-held prejudices in society against female leaders, especially when there is a threat or crisis? Is the glass ceiling perhaps a vestige of our evolutionary past that may be hard to get rid of through information and education? And, are there situations in which humans are more likely to follow the gaze of female leaders?

These are some of the questions we are tackling at the moment.

As a more general conclusion, if we want to study whether someone is leader or not, we could not look at the content of their speeches but at whether they are being looked at when they speak, and when their eyes are being followed while they speak. As a leadership researcher, my estimate is that 90% of our leadership influence comes about through non-verbal cues such as faces, gazes, gestures, tones and pitches. (See a previous blog, "The Sound of Leadership.") Just 10% of leadership may be determined by the actual words we use.

Maybe there is a lesson in here about how to increase your status, leadership, and influence on others.

1. Zuberbuehler, K. (2008). Gaze following. Current Biology, 18, R453-R455.

2. Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural evolution. Behavior and Brain Sciences, 28, 675-691.

3. Ohlsen, van Zoest, & Van Vugt, M. (2013). Gender and facial dominance in gaze cuing: The emotional context matters in the eyes that we follow. PLoS ONE 8(4): e59471. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059471

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