The Ancient World and the Murderer's Eyes

People may identify violent offenders in surprising ways.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

Gratisography Used with Permission
Source: Gratisography Used with Permission

Modern psychology generally focuses on our lives as they are now, on what we think and feel in our everyday world. Yet there is an older source of our minds and mentality, one rooted in our ancestors’ world for millions of years. Ever since the time, 70 million years ago and more, when our squirrel-sized ancestors fled their cunning dinosaur predator Troodon, the evolution of human psychology has emphasized one critical dictum: stay alive.

The ancient origin of our modern minds is not a new concept. Decades ago, Professor Gordon Orians showed that modern human beings, looking at paintings of people and trees in the context of a sunset, preferred to have the people and the trees grouped closely together. Why? Sunset is the time when the big cats come out to feed.

Few people are threatened by cats today; we tend to feed the smaller ones canned fish and call them Mr. Fluffkins. But when the cats were seven-foot saber-tooths, or the quick deadly monsters we now call Dinofelis (literally, "terrible cats"), our ancestors learned to fear them; Orians held that this ancient fear is still with us, deep in our ancient minds. Orians believed that we still like to have a climbable tree readily available, at least at the time of day when we might expect the big cats to come out. 

The ancient world is still with us in other ways, too. Almost 20 years ago, I demonstrated that modern urban people, inexperienced in hunting or tracking, still learned animal tracks three times as efficiently as they did other stimuli (Sharps et al., 2002). Apparently, we evolved with a special ability to learn to track animals.

This hunting skill is no longer important to most of us, but it was once. For our ancestors, this skill was crucial for their survival.

Survival is the key, as it has been for millions of years; and for humans, one very good way of surviving is to avoid contact with serial killers. It would, therefore, be good if we had a mechanism, perhaps operating below the level of our everyday conscious awareness, that would let us identify the homicidal individuals to be avoided. But how could such a mechanism operate?

Our primate relatives often obtain social information through such means as anogenital sniffing, or through close observation of the colors of other primates’ hindquarters; but, perhaps fortunately, such options are generally closed to humans, with our poor sense of smell and our blandly monochromatic buttocks.

How, hypothetically, could we tell a serial killer from everybody else?

Many cultures hold that the eyes are the windows of the soul. My students and I decided to find out if this is true, specifically with reference to serial killers.  

In two experiments (Sharps & Herrera, 2019), volunteers examined pictures of the eyes of serial killers (e.g., Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and Charles Manson), versus pictures of the eyes of ordinary, non-murderous people. Then, we asked our volunteers a few questions. 

One question was whether you would trust the person whose eyes were depicted. Trust of the serial killers was about two-thirds the trust of normal people, based on nothing more than a view of the eyes.

Did respondents “like” serial killers? Not very much; respondents found serial killers only about half as likable as the non-murderous, based, again, only on their eyes.

How about “goodness”? Our volunteers saw serial killers as only about three-quarters as “good” as non-killers. 

All of these results were statistically significant. No volunteers recognized the serial killers, or knew they were killers at all. Yet for our volunteers, a single view of the eyes distinguished the killers from ordinary people, in terms of perceived trustworthiness, likability, and goodness. The eyes literally do have it.

These results showed that we obtain a great deal of information, of which we aren’t consciously unaware, from the eyes of the people we see. 

This is important. A lot of people who didn’t commit the crimes of which they are accused are not necessarily nice people. If jurors are judging suspects by their eyes, rather than by the evidence presented in a given case, many wrongful convictions could result. 

Outside the criminal justice system, one can see how judging people on our “first impressions” of their eyes could result in other significant social problems as well. We need to study these issues further. A lot further.

For the moment, we can say that psychologists and the entire criminal justice system would do well to realize that jurors and witnesses do not come to the courtroom as blank slates. We each have a long evolutionary history, and that history is still with us in our thoughts and our perceptions, in the courtroom and in our daily lives.


Sharps, M.J., & Herrera, M.R. (2019).  The Eyes Really Do Have It: Attribution of Character in the Eyes of Killers.  Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 34, 105-108. 

Sharps, M.J., Villegas, A.B., Nunes, M.A., & Barber, T.L. (2002).  Memory for Animal Tracks: A Possible Cognitive Artifact of Human Evolution.  Journal of Psychology, 136, 469-492.