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Look into my eyes…..

Monday, April 29, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

eyecontactsymbolHow often have you read that “the eyes are the window to the soul”? What that means, say proponents, is that all you have to do to know how someone feels is to look into their eyes and you know all.

New research would say that only holds true (at least if you are a man) when gazing into the eyes of another man. If you are gazing into the eyes of a woman? Not so much. Some women would say they have known this their entire life. Men simply do not understand. Now science has proved the women right. But, it isn’t the fault of the men. It’s simply evolutionary.  Let’s see… that means that survival of the species has never required men understanding women, only that it requires men understanding each other. Oh, joy.

Researchers recruited 22 men (all single and between the ages of 21 and 52 with an average age of 35.6 years). These men were all “right-handed, medically and psychiatrically healthy, with estimated IQs greater than 80 and an average IQ of 109.8”. Rocket scientists they were not but they were certainly of average intellect. The researchers hooked the men up to fMRI machines while the participants looked at 36 pairs of eyes and chose between paired terms to describe the emotional state of the person pictured. (The paired terms included “distrustful or terrified”, for example.)

This exercise is called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” (RMET) and it consists of 36 black and white photos, half male and half female. Each of the photos allegedly reflects a certain emotion and while the link above gives you four word choices, in this research, participants were given two choices to describe the emotional state communicated by the eyes. (You can take the test with four choices at the link above and compare your scores with the 22 men in this study.)

The research participants were asked to identify the gender of the individual whose eyes were shown in the photos. You will note it is rarely even a question since the women’s eyebrows are all groomed and none among the male eyes are. Not surprisingly, participants were able to identify gender quite readily. They were not, however, as able to accurately identify the emotion depicted in the eyes. Further, they showed even more trouble identifying emotions in the eyes of women than in the eyes of men.

Based on the fMRI scans, the researchers determined that the brain activity of men was different when looking into the eyes of women than when they are looking at men.  Specifically, gazing into the eyes of men activated the right amygdala (housing fear and sadness reactions, among other things) significantly more than when gazing into the eyes of women. In short, the researchers conclude that men are more able to identify emotions in other men than they are to identify emotions in women. Why do the researchers think this happens?

“The finding that men are superior in recognizing emotions/mental states of other men, as compared to women, might be surprising. From an evolutionary point of view, accurate interpretations of other men’s rather than women’s thoughts and intentions, especially threatening cues may have been a factor contributing to survival in ancient times. As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.”

So. It isn’t that men are potentially more threatened by other men nor that they are used to interpreting women’s expressions as sexual–it’s because ever since humankind were Neanderthals, men had to be alert to threat and menace, and so that trait has been retained for at least 35,000 to 45,000 years (according to estimates of when Neanderthals last roamed the planet).

As Tom Jacobs, over at Pacific Standard puts it,

Indeed, that ability to read male faces could still prove valuable in business meetings or political showdowns. Unless, of course, your negotiating partner is a woman. So, like our taste for fatty foods, this may be another example of an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation that no longer serves us well. In the words of the 16th-century proverb, the eyes are the window to the soul. But for men gazing into the eyes of women, that pane of glass is fogged over.

So if I have this right, men would develop the ability to have heightened awareness of women’s reactions if men were concerned that the women would kill them. Over millennia. So it’s not really men’s fault. If women had been more menacing before the second ice-age, men would have gotten it by now.

It’s a two-edged sword. Men struggle to identify women’s emotions. In personal relationships, it is often a challenge and an obstacle. For women, however, in negotiation, it may be an advantage! We’ve written about the disadvantages women face when mediating/negotiating with men, but this could be an advantage! Men’s difficulty in reading women’s emotions from eye contact can work for you professionally. At least, according to this research!

Our own belief is that women and men are actually more alike than different and our perspective is increasingly backed up by research and writing that would call this sort of research “neurosexism”. These detractors say that much of the neuroscience research focuses on citing differences in neural anatomy functions that may not really make a difference. The problem however, is that those differences are often used to justify differential treatment or considerations that spills over into “educational and employment disparities, family relations and arguments about same-sex institutions”. It’s an interesting way to view the burgeoning neuroscience literature–with a bit of a jaundiced eye. And ultimately, it’s partly about explanation of an observed phenomenon, but also about what we are trying to justify (in laws, in social policy, in accommodations) using that phenomenon. It is a slippery slope, subject to being misinterpreted and misapplied. Beware!

Schiffer B, Pawliczek C, Müller BW, Gizewski ER, & Walter H (2013). Why don’t men understand women? Altered neural networks for reading the language of male and female eyes. PloS one, 8 (4) PMID: 23593185



dv168060aI sent my kids to a small school with a 1:12 student teacher ratio for kindergarten through 12th grade. While I knew that student/teacher ratio was terrific, I worried sometimes that they did not have the diversity in student body they would have in a larger school. My kids (now in college) have told me consistently this was not an issue since they were taught to look at the individual and not just ethnicity both at home and at school. And they were forced by school size to do just that since there were fewer than 500 students in the entire K-12 school. They have friends (and in my daughter’s case, a first generation Vietnamese-American roommate) from that school to this day that reflect the diversity of students in the school. Nonetheless, I was glad to see this study from researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Two researchers looked at 4,745 high school students in the United States and ultimately conclude that “large schools promote racial segregation and discourage interracial friendships”. The researchers say that people, in general, prefer to make friends with same race others. We also prefer those who are similar in age, education, hobbies, personality, religious affiliation and political beliefs. It’s a lot of preferences through which we screen potential friend candidates.

I find that their characterization that the schools “promote” segregation is not quite fair. It suggests an intent to segregate that isn’t really supported. What is clear though, is that larger schools result in such divisions. In a smaller environment, you are unable to find as many same-race/ethnicity matches and thus are more likely to form friendships with those different than you in race/ethnicity. In other words, you are forced to look beyond what is visible to the eye and instead learn to know potential friends for their additional characteristics. Smaller groups tend to view one another on a more personal level, because people know one another more closely. If the 6th grade has 75 people, most students will know them all. If there is a grade size of 1000, you might still only really ‘know’ 75, and those 75 will tend to be those most ‘like me’. The researchers are sociologists and also (apparently) well-versed in statistics so the article itself is not a simple read. The conclusion, however, is simple: smaller groups yield more interracial relationships.

The researchers wonder about the impact of the internet and social media on interracial relationships and suggest that the huge “group” size available to all of us via the internet and social media could predict fewer interracial relationships in the future. Or as they say it:

One potential negative social consequence of the internet as a social interaction medium in the ever more globalized world is to encourage social isolation and social segmentation by expanding size immensely.”

Not all of us have/had the choice to attend small schools. Not all students want to attend small schools. But this research isn’t just applicable to primary and secondary education environments. It’s also a lesson for the workplace.

If you are a large organization, establish interest groups that will draw people across racial/ethnic lines.

Pay attention to having diversity across the spectrum in your employees but also in specialty areas/niches so you do not end up inadvertently racially segregating your employees.

Attorneys have to be able to talk to many different kinds of jurors about many different kinds of topics. Sometimes it’s awkward. Providing training on successfully negotiating potentially awkward conversations in the workplace can bolster workplace communications and potentially transfer to more comfort in the courtroom.

Look at diversity from multiple perspectives. It isn’t only about race/ethnicity. It’s also about gender, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or the lack thereof, disability status, and more.

Different is good. And it often makes us nervous. Precisely because it’s different. What this research says is that smaller groupings lead to more friendships across racial/ethnic lines. What we say is that smaller groupings and diverse choices could lead to more friendships and easy working relationships across lots of differences that could divide us. We are more alike than we are different. Make sure your workplace structure, organization, and culture lets employees discover that over and over again.

Cheng S, & Xie Y (2013). Structural effect of size on interracial friendship. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23589848



sunny dayIf you want to prevail at trial, would it be useful to be able to control the weather? New research would say it depends on whether you want the jurors to help the plaintiff or defendant or not. Seriously? Seriously. It’s called the Sunshine Samaritan Effect.

“Your Honor, I’d like to recess until the sun shines…”

European researchers looked at the prior research on human social interactions and sunshine. What they found was that people are more likely to grant interview requests by surveyors when the sun is shining. Food servers who tell you weather conditions are pleasant as they deliver food to your windowless hotel room (a windowless hotel room?) receive larger tips than those who tell you it’s nasty outside. When a restaurant server writes either nothing, a favorable weather condition for the next day, or an unfavorable weather condition for the next day on the back of your check–those customers given a favorable forecast leave a bigger tip. So, curious researchers that they are, the authors of this paper wondered if the good weather effect would translate to spontaneous helping activity toward strangers.

They conducted experiments on sunny and cloudy days between 9am and 1pm in two towns near the Atlantic Coast in France. They did not conduct the experiment in the rain and were careful to only work when the outdoor temperature was between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Eight confederates (4 male and 4 female, all around 21 years old and dressed in jeans, t-shirts and boat shoes) approached 221 men and 243 women (estimated to be between age 20 and age 50) at random while they were walking alone in pedestrian streets.

We assume the confederates did not look at all threatening even though they were told to avoid anyone who was “a child, a teenager, an elderly man/woman, or a member of a group”.

The confederates (who carried a handbag–presumably a “man bag” for the males) would identify a target passerby and begin walking in the same direction but about 10 feet in front of the target. Then, they would “accidentally drop a glove”. (Why they would have gloves on sunny days was not explained.) Observers (strategically placed 164 feet away and with apparently excellent eyesight or good binoculars) noted the reaction of the passerby, his/her gender and an estimate of the target age.

“Responses were recorded if the target passerby warned the confederate within 10 seconds of dropping the glove. If not, the confederate acted as if he/she was searching for something within his/her handbag, looked around in surprise, and returned to pick up the glove without looking at the participant.”

And here’s what happened. When it was a sunny day, 65.3% of the participants spontaneously helped the confederate by alerting them to the dropped glove within 10 seconds. On cloudy days, only 53.3% of them did. This, the researchers inform us, is statistically significant at the p = .009 level. They conclude we are more likely to help spontaneously on predominantly sunny days.

And that is why you may want to consider the impact of the weather on helping behavior. There is research that says asking for help is more successful on sunny days. Now this research says spontaneous helping is more likely on sunny days as well.

Guéguen, N., & Lamy, L. (2013). Weather and Helping: Additional Evidence of the Effect of the Sunshine Samaritan The Journal of Social Psychology, 153 (2), 123-126 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2012.720618



tboonepickensIt isn’t just Texas. But since we are based in Texas, we do a fair amount of work in Texan family litigation that is contentious in the normal ways while also being complicated by an intense sense of betrayal on both sides of the case. There are almost always psychological issues involved, some more serious than others.

In the last few years, we’ve worked on inheritance disputes, conflicts surrounding family businesses, divorces involving huge sums of money, wars over family trusts and contract violations in a business owned by extended family members (i.e., cousins and siblings, parents, aunts and uncles and a surviving grandparent). America’s royalty are the uber-wealthy. And we find the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” endlessly fascinating, only surpassed by the intrigue of their failings.

It is always disturbing to see the pain and sense of betrayal laid bare among family members. And it is upsetting for mock jurors as well. Their initial sense of fascination as they hear the details of the family history and fortune gives way to feeling weighed down by the emotional burden of the conflict. The mock jurors begin to feel what family members on both sides of the conflict experience and they often make comments like these:

“I am so grateful I didn’t grow up rich!”

“They need some therapy, not a lawsuit!”

“S/he is so ungrateful. Look at what the family did for him/her.”

They should forgive each other and start fresh.”

“Have they forgotten this is family? They need to remember they love each other!”

And so on. They always have the opinion that family disputes should not be worked out in court. They want the family members to remember the value of the relationship and repair the rift. At the same time, they often acknowledge the rift is so huge, it cannot be repaired. But that doesn’t make them feel better. At the end of the day, jurors (like family members) often feel depressed, hopeless, helpless and distressed. Sometimes they are disgusted if, in their minds, there is a bad actor (like an ungrateful child, a malicious uncle, or a jealous cousin) they can point to as the party to blame. Other times, they are disgusted by both sides of the dispute and want to simply throw up their hands.

So we were not surprised to see 85-year-old T. Boone Pickens suing his 58-year-old son Michael for cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. Specifically, he is charging his son with “invasion of privacy, defamation, libel, harmful access by computer, and extortion”. There are many details of the lawsuit at the Forbes website and it is a sad story with all the elements we’ve consistently seen in litigation within wealthy families. Reader comments communicate the idea that they think they’ve found a “bad guy” in this suit–even with only limited information available.

Forbes tells other stories of high-stakes (read: billionaire) family litigation in Korea and Australia and also here at home between the popular In-N-Out burger family. Every family likely has some dirty laundry. Uber-wealthy families tend to have a bit more than average. And family lawsuits hang it out for all of us to see. The shame and embarrassment often leads to anger and resentment and eventual litigation. T. Boone isn’t alone. But, in our experience, it takes tremendous betrayal for a wealthy family patriarch to speak publicly by filing litigation.

Jurors want to see what they decide as useful in some way. Either useful for resolving the dispute or for settling the situation so the family can heal. They want to solve a problem and make the world a better place.  While jury decisions may resolve the legal conflict, the relationship rifts are rarely fixable. Ultimately, it isn’t funny. It isn’t salacious. It is simply very, very sad.



frank-ritter-allureSometimes academics make the most of a clever turn of phrase. But this post isn’t about sex and it isn’t about Marilyn Monroe. Instead, it is about everyone’s favorite other topic: the CSI effect. Am I right? That is your favorite other topic, isn’t it?

Even though there have been growing indications that fear of the CSI effect is over-blown, less than a year ago the ABA published recommendations on countering the CSI effect. You may remember hearing about the research saying that even showing jurors pictures of fMRI brain scans was wildly persuasive. We’ve actually covered a lot of the varying research on neurolaw and you can review that here on the blog. Some of it is hard to believe. And much of the ‘research’ is almost certainly wrong.

This time though we have a bit of dry reality from a review of the brain imaging studies that have had the most press. The first (McCabe and Castel, 2008) essentially said that when you show people photos of fMRI scans, that information is more powerful than a bar chart showing actual data counts. The second (Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson & Gray, 2008) essentially said that poor explanations of varying psychological phenomena were seen as more convincing when accompanied by neuroscience information that was irrelevant to the explanation.

The authors of this research review describe various issues with both studies and comment that, despite those issues, these studies have been cited over and over again as “indicative of the power of images to overwhelm our judgment”. Evidently, bad science is still good press. While they have been cited repeatedly, the current authors were able to find only one replication of the results. Otherwise, the impact of images on persuasion has been insignificant despite multiple large-scale studies.

What appears to be missing in some of the research studies is the narrative that should accompany the images. What jurors want is to know the truth. To feel convinced that there is substance they can trust. A bar chart can be nonsense– pure opinion unless it is effectively explained and the underlying data is both understood and accepted. It is a secondary representation of reality– it is not reality itself. No one on a jury understands an fMRI scan by looking at it. But it creates an impression of being a photograph, in contrast to a bar chart appearing to be a cartoon. Gee– why would anyone favor an fMRI? It isn’t the CSI effect. It’s just sensible people wanting something to believe in.

Last week a client of mine prevailed in a civil RICO and insurance fraud case against businessman who owned chiropractic clinics (Allstate v. Plambeck). Jurors concluded that he did various things that represented fraudulent billing. Including evidence related to x-rays. X-rays have the potential to be superficially understood by a layperson. In this case, what jurors understood that an x-ray that is solid white or solid black is worthless. They understood that an x-ray that shows a spine partially obscured by giant belt buckles, jewelry, or zippers was probably taken by someone with sloppy technique, and thus a lower level of professional skill. The case also involved tables reflecting the ‘quality’ of the medical records, charts depicting non-diagnostic x-rays, and other data. But nothing persuaded the jurors like the physical evidence. In this case they were able to immediately identify the problems. In most cases, the evidence needs to be taught by an effective witness using the images. But the issue isn’t one of a ‘CSI Effect’. It’s about a wish to have evidence.

Why is that happening? When we are so afraid of the CSI effect, why has the scientific debunking of an aspect of this effect gone unincorporated into our collective wisdom? The authors put forth several hypotheses. Among them, the idea that images are appealing and so we assume they are inordinately persuasive. They quote one of our favorite bloggers (Neuroskeptic) and this sort of citing is atypical for academic publications:

“There is another kind of seductive allure, probably the oldest and most dangerous of all–the allure of that which confirms what we already thought we knew.”

And that’s what we tend to think of many of the neurolaw studies we’ve written about when it comes to application in the courtroom. They are often written in ways that make you think they make intuitive sense and there is a magical abracadabra quality to them that makes us not question them much. But when you have murder defenses (or convictions) based on such foundational research that is not yet ready for application in the real world with real consequences–it’s pretty scary. And likely fits right into the allure of “that which confirms what we already thought we knew”.

Thanks to Farah and Hook for sharing something with us that we didn’t already know!

Farah, M., & Hook, C. (2013). The Seductive Allure of “Seductive Allure” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (1), 88-90 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612469035