Windows to the Soul?

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has uncovered a surprising result of what happens when attention is directed towards another person’s eyes.1 In the initial experiment, participants were asked to view side-by-side photographs comparing the faces of masked (i.e., surgical-type masks) and unmasked individuals and rate the faces on a variety of personal attributes. Initial analyses revealed that the participants tended to rate the faces of masked individuals as being significantly higher in warmth and competence when compared to the faces of their unmasked counterparts. However, when the researchers conducted follow-up analyses, they found that this effect was not being driven by a belief in mask effectiveness or the participants’ political affiliation, rather it was the result of directing the participants’ attention to the eyes in the photos.

Follow-up studies confirmed these findings. Later, when participants were requested to simply gaze into the eyes of the pictured faces, the same results were found. The effect also occurred when participants were asked to compare uncropped photos to photos that had been cropped to reveal only the eyes. Across all studies, participants consistently attributed greater warmth and competence to the pictured individuals when their eyes were the focus of the participants’ attention.

These results are somewhat unusual given the extensive amount of research demonstrating the powerful and influential role that facial expressions such as smiling and frowning play in our ability to learn, understand, and connect with others. In fact, smiles have historically been one of the most powerful tools in the marketer’s toolbox. Research shows that simply exposing consumers to concave (smile-like) lines results in the observed products and services being rated more positively and more likely to be chosen by the consumer when given the opportunity.2 Other recent research shows that smiling significantly enhances the perception of social influencers’ warmth and increases consumers’ feelings of admiration, positivity, and behavioral intention.3 The humble smile also results in higher ratings of attractiveness when evaluating strangers’ faces.4 There is no replacing the human smile, that is for sure. But maybe there is more to the eyes than we have previously realized.

Perhaps the eyes really are the window to the soul. Research in psychology certainly suggests that they may be telling us more than we know. In fact, our eyes can reflect how genuinely interested we are in other people and in our surroundings. Studies show that pupil dilation is not only related to ambient light levels, but also is directly impacted by our awareness and interest in other people, topics, and activities; Widening to let more light in when we are interested and engaged in the activity and contracting when we are not.5 In other words, our eyes reveal how authentic our actions and words really are. While smiles can be faked, the eyes can reveal the sincerity of what a person (or an ad) is really communicating to other people.

Although the smile is irreplaceable in marketing (and in our daily lives), make sure the eyes receive the extra focus and attention they deserve. It may make all the difference. To better understand consumer psychology and to find out more about effectively focusing your messaging, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].

[1] Stosic, M. D., Helwig, S., & Ruben, M. A. (2022). More Than Meets the Eyes: Bringing

Attention to the Eyes Increases First Impressions of Warmth and Competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0(0).

[2] Salgado-Montejo, A., LeĂłn, I.T., Elliot, A.J., Salgado, C.J., & Spence, C. (2015). Smiles over

Frowns: When Curved Lines Influence Product Preference. Psychology & Marketing, 32, 771-781.

[3] Kim, T. & Read, G.L. (2022). “Influencers’ smiles work regardless of product and

message”, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 40(4), pp. 425-440. 

[4] Golle, Jessika & Mast, Fred & Lobmaier, Janek. (2013). Something to smile about: The interrelationship between attractiveness and emotional expression. Cognition and Emotion. 28.

[5] MathĂ´t, S., & Van der Stigchel, S. (2015). New Light on the Mind’s Eye: The Pupillary Light

Response as Active Vision. Current directions in psychological science, 24(5), 374–378.