Wide-eyed expressions of fear help us determine enemies, Canadian researchers say

Shereen Dindar
Contributing Writer
Shine On

Canadian researchers have discovered that wide-eyed expressions which typically signal fear actually have a greater purpose.

Researchers from the University of Toronto claim that these expressions enlarge our field of vision making it easier to spot threats, but even more interestingly, they presumably enhance the ability of others to locate the source of danger.

“Emotional expressions look the way they do for a reason,” says Daniel Lee, lead researcher and psychology PhD student. “In addition to being useful for communicating emotional states, they are also useful as raw physical signals.”

The small study, published in the journal Psychological Science, examined the field of vision for 28 undergraduate students and determined that those who widened their eyes were able to discriminate visual patterns farther out in their peripheral vision than were participants who made neutral expressions or expressions of disgust.

Lee and his team also found that widened eyes sent a signal telling observers to “look there,” enhancing the observers ability to locate the same threat. These effects did not depend on recognizing the eyes as fearful.

An increased iris-to-sclera ratio in the eyes (meaning greater white space) resulted in participants being quicker to respond to threats. This was true for the observers as well.

“Our ability to process other people’s eye gaze is finely-tuned. The fact that this processing is further enhanced by widening eyes underscores the importance of our eyes as social signals,” says Lee.

Another study from 2006 also acknowledges our eyes as social signals, concluding that children with psychopathic traits have a difficulty recognizing fear in other people's eyes.