Stare-way to heaven

Staring has a bad rep. “What are you staring at?!” is not exactly a friendly piece of banter. In the classroom we are told to stop staring out the window and get on with our work. We seem on some occasions to interpret staring as a lack of focus, on others as a sign of stupidity, and on others as a signal of malevolence. Certainly a good stare has power and now a new study has shown just how a stare functions in certain social situations.

When biologists and psychologists want to understand the roots of some human behaviour one of the first things they do will see where that behaviour exists in the animal world, if it does at all. In the case of staring it is a behaviour that exists in our closest of evolutionary relatives, the primates.

Research tells us that when primates get into dominance battles they tend not to resolve them by fighting but rather by staring contests. Charlton Heston found this out only too well in the only Planet of the Apes movie worth talking about (the 1969 version) when he was subjected to some pretty intense eyeballing by the Gorilla General Urko. Admittedly Urko’s glare may have been intensified by about three inches of PVC make-up, but the intimidatory stare was certainly there. Fortunately Chuck was not weaponless when Urko turned on his stare-glare because staring to establish dominance is automatic for humans too.

This was established in a new study where participants watched a computer screen while a series of coloured ovals appeared that were coloured blue, green and red respectively. Below each of the ovals were a group coloured dots, again in blue, green and red. The task apparently was to look from the oval to the dots of the same colour below. There was, however, a twist.

For a split second, just before the oval appeared, a face of the same colour appeared. The face had either a staring angry expression, a happy expression, or a neutral expression. The researchers were testing how long it took people to look away from the various emotions. Additionally, the subjects were given personality questionnaires to establish how dominant or otherwise they were in social situations.

The results showed that people who were motivated to be dominant were slower to look away from the angry, staring faces. By contrast, people who were motivated to seek rewards spent more time looking at the happy faces. In other words, people who seek dominance socially will engage in staring contests as a reflex, without even meaning to do it. People who don’t care about dominance will probably look away from a stare and seek a happier visage.

That all means that dominance is established in a fraction of a second and it is a matter of who has the biggest balls; eyeballs that is.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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