Wide-eyed fear expressions may help us—and others—to locate threats

Wide-eyed expressions that typically signal fear may enlarge our visual field and mutually enhance others' ability to locate threats, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The research, conducted by psychology graduate student Daniel Lee of the University of Toronto with advisor Adam Anderson, suggests that wide-eyed expressions of fear are functional in ways that directly benefit both the person who makes the expression and the person who observes it.

The findings show that widened eyes provide a wider visual field, which can help us to locate potential threats in our environment. But these widened eyes also help to send a clearer signal telling observers to "look there," which may enhance their ability to locate the same threat, as well.

" look the way they do for a reason," says Lee. "They are socially useful now for communicating , but this new research suggests that they were also useful as raw physical signals."

Lee and colleagues found that participants who made wide-eyed fear expressions were able to discriminate farther out in their than were participants who made neutral expressions or expressions of .

Next, they investigated the benefits that wide-eyed expressions might confer to onlookers.

The researchers found that participants were better able to tell which direction a pair of eyes was looking as the eyes became wider. And wider eyes helped participants respond to targets that were located in the direction of the gaze. Importantly, these benefits did not depend on recognizing the eyes as fearful.

So why are wide-eyed expressions so helpful for onlookers?

As eyes become wider, we see more of the whites of the eyes, known as sclera. Lee and colleagues hypothesized that this could increase the contrast with the irises that signal the gaze, making it easier to tell where someone is looking. Indeed, their data revealed that iris display and higher iris-to-sclera contrast were correlated with faster response times.

Lee believes that this research demonstrates just how social we are wired to be:

"Our ability to process other people's eye gaze is already finely-tuned; the fact that this processing is further enhanced by expressive eye widening underscores the importance of our eyes as social signals."

Related Stories

A frown or a smile? Children with autism can't discern

May 05, 2007

When we have a conversation with someone, we not only hear what they say, we see what they say. Eyes can smolder or twinkle. Gazes can be direct or shifty. “Reading” these facial expressions gives context and meaning ...

What are emotion expressions for?

Dec 23, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- That cartoon scary face – wide eyes, ready to run – may have helped our primate ancestors survive in a dangerous wild, according to the authors of an article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The au ...

Are people really staring at you?

Apr 09, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—People often think that other people are staring at them even when they aren't research led by the University of Sydney has found.

Recommended for you

Controlling childbirth pain tied to lower depression risk

4 hours ago

Controlling pain during childbirth and post delivery may reduce the risk of postpartum depression, writes Katherine Wisner, M.D., a Northwestern Medicine® perinatal psychiatrist, in a July 23 editorial in Anesthesia & An ...

How children categorize living things

13 hours ago

How would a child respond to this question? Would his or her list be full of relatives, animals from movies and books, or perhaps neighborhood pets? Would the poppies blooming on the front steps make the list or the oak tree ...

Preschoolers can reflect on what they don't know

13 hours ago

Contrary to previous assumptions, researchers find that preschoolers are able to gauge the strength of their memories and make decisions based on their self-assessments. The study findings are published in ...

User comments