Eye, eye, sir!

It’s not very often that one runs across a scientific study whose methodology consisted largely of watching the Fox TV show COPS.

But that was how Mardi Kidwell, assistant professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, went about her research on “the role of gaze in the interactional management of hysteria by the police,” recently published in the journal Discourse Studies.

Kidwell analyzed more than 35 hours of footage of police confronting hysterical people, and found that holding eye contact (“gaze”) is one of the most effective calming methods police have.

In one segment discussed in detail in Kidwell’s paper, officers trying to calm a woman whose grandson has been shot use increasingly more forceful verbal tactics to convince her to look at them, but she keeps looking away. Finally, one officer gently touches her face and turns it toward him. By keeping eye contact with her, he’s able to calm her down so that she begins to breathe normally and is able to compose herself enough to drive to the hospital to see her wounded grandson.

“Holding gaze,” as it’s called, is something Kidwell found police rely on in a variety of situations, from getting people to cooperate during questioning to keeping them from interfering with emergency workers to getting them to comply during arrests.

It’s an example of the importance eye contact plays for humans as a species. In fact, other research has found the importance we place on eye contact is one of the things that distinguishes us from our closest animal relatives.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany took a look at what effect head and eye movements had on redirecting the gaze of great apes as opposed to that of human babies. They found that the apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) were more likely to follow the experimenter’s gaze when he moved only his head, whereas human infants more often followed his gaze when he moved only his eyes.

Certainly human eyes are easier to follow than those of the great apes. Our eyes lack several pigments found in the eyes of other primates, which is why the fibrous outer covering of our eyes, called the “sclera,” is white (and theirs aren’t). That lack of coloring enhances the contrast between our irises and the sclera, and the contrast between our eyes and our skin. Our eyes are also much more horizontally elongated and, compared to that of the great apes, disproportionately large.

We rely on eye contact a great deal in conversation. A study by Dr. Roel Vertegaal at Queen’s University found that there is a strong correlation between the amount of eye contact people receive in a group and their degree of participation. In other words, the more often a person in a group gets looked in the face, either while speaking or simply at random, the more “turns” that person will take in the conversation.

So important is eye contact that babies as young as two days old can detect when somebody is looking directly at them, according to a recent study carried out at Birkbeck College, London University, by English and Italian researchers. They showed pairs of photos of faces to babies between two and five days old. One face had the eyes averted, the other looked directly forward. The babies looked longer at the faces they were able to make eye contact with, and looked forward more.

In a second study, the researchers measured electrical activity in the brains of four-month-old infants, and found that the babies had much more brain response to the faces with a direct gaze.

So, to recap: hysterical people calm down when gazed upon directly. Eyes are very important to humans. Even very small children react strongly to eye contact.

Good news for the parents of two-year-olds, if you ask me.

“Look at me, Johnny! Keep looking at me! Now put the cookie jar down—put it down, Johnny, and keep looking at me!–and back away slowly…”

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2007/04/eye-eye-sir/

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