When the eyes narrow it signals that someone is discriminating, research finds.
This could mean they are angry, suspicious, aggressive or contemptuous.
When the eyes widen, though, it means they are highly sensitive to the information they are receiving.
This could mean their are interested, awe-struck or even feeling cowardly.
The way the eyes move to communicate emotions is linked to how we actually use our eyes for vision.
For example, narrowing our eyes allows us to see farther, while opening them wider lets in more light.
Dr Daniel H. Lee, the study’s first author, explained:
“For example, if you’re watching ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and wonder why when Larry David squints his eyes that conveys scrutiny, our work offers a theory that explains it.
Narrowing the eyes for visual scrutiny also communicates scrutiny.”
The conclusions come from a study in which people looked at pairs of eyes showing different emotions and shapes.
Despite the tremendous complexity of facial expressions, the widening and narrowing of the eyes is surprisingly informative.
Dr Lee said:
“Human expressions are highly complex — when enumerating our facial muscles, we computed that there are at least 3.7 x 1016 different expression combinations, which is about the same probabilistic space as two Powerball jackpots.
We looked at a subset of this space — just the eye region — and found that one simple physical dimension (widening vs. narrowing) explained a majority of this complex space in social communication.”
The eyes remain vital to understanding other people’s emotions, even when we can see the rest of the face, the researchers found.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Lee & Anderson, 2017).