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Don't Click Until You See the #FFFFFF of Their Eyes

If you've ever looked closely into the eyes of a nonhuman animal, even a chimpanzee, our closest extant relative, or a dog, our best friend, you may have noticed that those animals do not have "whites" to their eyes. Actually, if they roll their eyes around wildly, you can see some white around the edges of their sclera, which is mostly brown or some other shade of dark.

In modern times the phrase "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" sounds antiquated indeed, since we usually now kill each other at much greater range, in warfare. But it makes the point that humans are among the few animals which have very distinct whites to their eyes (ravens and goats are two others), with white sclera around the iris, which itself surrounds the black pupil, in ordinary circumstances.

Scientists are making headway into understanding why this might be so, and as they do so there are implications for better understanding and possibly improving the behaviors of humans who cannot "see the whites of their eyes" during chat, or even on Second Life.

Ever since I was a graduate student in biological anthropology at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, the existence of this small difference has been something that fascinated me. You can see a great illustration of a chimp's eyes compared to a human's here. I am a fan of the Cooperative Eyes Hypothesis:

[T]he distinctive features that help highlight our eyes evolved partly to help us follow each others' gazes when communicating or when cooperating with one another on tasks requiring close contact. (MSNBC)

In other words, one of the explanations for this difference between ourselves and related animals is the communication value—conscious and unconscious—of human eyes. That value is vastly enhanced by the color contrasts available between our facial skin, the whites of our eyes, and the iris and pupils on our eyes. From 20 feet away, if you can see my face, you can tell where I am looking, even if my head isn't pointed that way. This is simply not true to any great extent for any other animal.

Some see the origins here of sharing, since by being a human with whites to your eyes, a lot more information "leaks out" to those with whom you are in social connection than it would for a chimp or a dog. (The dog at least can compensate with a better sense of smell.) Others see the early origins of "PC" behaviors, since a dominant person can use the whites of their eyes to signal what is appropriate behavior without having to use words or force.

It was only recently, however, that I connected the dots between this anthropological interest of mine and the problem of attaining human connections between people in wholly virtual worlds, or between people who are simultaneously acting in face to face and virtual worlds. In last week's column, I noted that one person I had spoken with said that what they missed most in a meeting when someone's head was aimed at a laptop was the nonverbal communication from their eyes that indicate attention to others.

So, I welcomed the results of some recent research that support the Cooperative Eyes Hypothesis. One study watched the reactions of nonhuman ape and human infant reactions to the head and eye movements of an experimenter. The chimp and gorilla infants tended to follow only whole head movements, while human infants followed head movements and movements of only the experimenter's eyes.

In other recent research, folks at UCLA discovered that people being asked to make charitable donations were more generous is they felt they were being watched, and that even the presence of a simplified line drawing on a computer screen of a pair of eyes looking at them was enough to boost their generosity.

Interestingly, some educators are working on ways to teach some very informal coping and learning mechanisms for children from low income families that includes teaching the children how to use their eyes and facial expressions to indicate interest when they are being addressed by an authority figure. If you're sitting in the back row, saying "uh-huh" every once in a while, or just nodding your head occasionally, are trumped by the teacher noticing that you are staring into his eyes, and wrinkling your brow a bit.

The folks at the Journal of Human Evolution are coming out soon with an entire issue on the evolution of the human eye, which I eagerly await. Meanwhile, perhaps we can think about some ways to use what little we think we know about this to see if we can change our students' behavior.

How about an add-on for Thunderbird for kids, a pair of eyes on the margin of the browser which stare out at the user in a benign way, but which grow increasingly agitated or disapproving-looking if the browser goes to questionable websites? I think I know some helicopter-parents-to-be who might pay for that one.

Or, maybe MySpace could just add a pair of eyes, realistically staring out at users, to some random selection of teenage sites and see if they could document safer, less risky behaviors from those pages?

Yeah, those are a little facetious, but something good is bound to happen in virtual space as we learn more and more about what happens in physical space that reinforces sharing and altruism and reduces risk behaviors.

Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP).

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