The Body Language of the Eyes

The eyes reveal what the heart conceals.

Posted Dec 11, 2009

Our eyes are formidable communicators of feelings, including comfort and discomfort, which helps us decipher others from a very tender age. The eyes reveal excitement at mom walking into the room but also concern when we are troubled. Often, what is not spoken out loud is expressed exquisitely in the eyes. In fact, I was prompted to write this today as I was visiting a research colleague and her eyes, at a distance, told me something was wrong—her father had passed away.

While a mother’s eyes will reflect the hopelessness she may feel when her baby is hospitalized they conversely reveal the joy at having found that the child is healthy and fine. Few things reflect our emotions as well or as rapidly as the eyes. Babies just several days old are already able to respond to the eyes of the mother and can tell the difference between a squint and wide open, dilated eyes.

The eyes serve as conduits of information we have relied on for thousands of years. We rely on them because of their accuracy. The man who is asked to help someone move will cover his eyes with his fingers rubbing them as he answers, “yes I will help you,” when no doubt this will be an inconvenience. This blocking behavior authentically reveals how he feels even though he will assist. Eye blocking behaviors such as shielding the eyes, lowering the eyelids for a prolonged period, and delaying opening the eyes are so hard-wired in us that children who are born blind, when they hear something they don’t like, will also cover their eyes.

Eye blocking is just one of the more obvious things that we do. When we are troubled, frustrated, or struggling with something emotionally, our eyelids may also close hard and remain closed, or the eyelids may flutter rapidly as an expression of our sentiment. Hugh Grant is famous in the movies for his eyelid flutter whenever he screws something up.

Research also shows that when we are nervous or troubled our blink rate increases, a phenomenon often seen with liars but also frequently seen with people under stress. I would not call anyone a liar just because their blink rate goes up, although while studying Richard Nixon I did notice that when he was struggling with facts while talking to the press his blink rate went from about 12 per minute to 68 per minute. Bill Clinton, during his deposition, showed a high blink rate, at times in excess of 92 per minute, but again these were individuals under a lot of stress.

There are misconceptions about interpreting eye behavior. Little or no eye contact is erroneously perceived by some as a classic sign of deception, especially during questioning, while the truthful should "lock eyes." This is not supported by research or experience. In fact, 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.

Eye contact is in fact a social/cultural phenomenon that is practiced differently around the world. In New York City we are, by social convention, allowed to look at each other for 1.68 seconds. In other cultures, especially in Latin America and elsewhere, your time window for gazing at others may be quite extended so long as it is not threatening. Eye aversion is practiced by many cultures to show respect to those in authority.

It is interesting to note in my own observations that when we are most comfortable we have the luxury of looking away and we find comfort there as we retrieve facts from our memory or ponder the future.

Eyes will move side to side, look down, or hold still as we process information. Just ask someone to multiply 56 x 89 in their head, and watch their eyes. The cognitive load placed on them by the multiplication task will cause all sorts of eye movements or even eye closure. All we can learn from this is that the person is processing information, not that they are telling the truth or lying.

I look at the eyes principally to tell me when someone is comfortable and relaxed. I also look at the eyes to tell me when someone is suddenly troubled by a subject or an event. Immediately I will see the orbits narrow, what I call the Clint Eastwood effect (remember in those Italian Westerns right before he was going to shoot, he always squinted). Squinting or the narrowing of the eye orbits indicates, very accurately, discomfort, stress, anger, or issues. I have capitalized on this behavior in negotiations as opposing counsel read each paragraph out loud; we could see which articles in the document were going to be problematic by the squinting of the eyes.