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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

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