Look me in the eye

In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world were coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.

She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.

So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.

I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. It will help to follow a poor candidate; you will look better by comparison.

We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will carry you through to the end.

Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.

Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.

Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?

Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural, and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.

We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.

My wife tells me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her today whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Moral judgment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Look me in the eye

  1. tim says:

    Paternal anecdote:

    My father often used to relate how his headmaster was a strict grammarian. To any request “Can I ..” (instead of “May I ” he invariably replied “Yes, if you are able”. On one occasion my father was desperate to visit the local village out of hours (history does not relate why). He poked his head round the door of the Headmaster’s study and immediately launched into: “Sir, can I go down to the village after supper?” and on receiving the automatic response “Yes, if you are able” instantly replied “Thank you, Sir” and immediately closed the door. There is no record of how he was received on his return from the village.

    Did he do wrong?

    • jimbeam says:

      It sounds like he did wrong.

    • jimbeam says:

      From today’s reading, 1 Corinthians 4:2-5.
      “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes.”

  2. milliganp says:

    I have to admit that I’m a firm favourite of the “eye contact IQ test”. I worked for many years in IT and I needed to filter people with technical knowledge from people with technical ability. I would ask a few fairly open and “no obvious answer” questions and would check their eyes for the spark of imagination. It is a practical reality that we sometimes neeed to make fairly rapid decisions. Similarly in selling, you need to weigh up the personalities you are selling to fairly rapidly.
    However what I did learn in sales is that you haven’t lost until you admit defeat, recovery from most situations is possible if you genuinely want to and are willing to put in the effort.

  3. John Candido says:

    My main problem is that I am positively prejudiced towards someone who is either attractive and/or has a fit body. I have the reverse prejudice for anyone that I privately deem unattractive or overweight. It is really irrational and unfair. I try to be aware of this proclivity and fight against it as much as I can with varying degrees of success. There are lots of factors that go into determining attractiveness. Cultural affinity, handsomeness or beauty, clothing, power, wealth, similar interests etc., can either attract or repel, depending on your perspective.

    I suppose you need to be aware where these prejudices can rear their ugly head in quite important contexts. As in a court room, in a job interview, when we feel threatened, as an officer of the law, a doctor or a nurse, a teacher, a minister, or an employer. They of course appear when there is a substantial difference between incomes, age, cultural factors, health, education, and job allocation. What can you do? It is just another cross that humans have to bear when they live together.

    • Quentin says:

      It seems to me that you are very aware of your prejudices – and that’s a whole lot better than someone who has prejudices but is not aware of them. I don’t think that exorcising prejudice is easy, and may be impossible. But provided that one can aim off, and so avoid injustice that’s as much as can be expected. You have the extra challenge of responding to prejudices which are not on the list which everyone identifies, e.g., colour, race etc.

  4. John Nolan says:

    Unlike John Candido I am positively prejudiced against someone who is ‘either attractive and/or has a fit body’. It suggests a person who is self-obsessed and superficial.

    • milliganp says:

      “I’m a vegetarian”, is a phrase guaranteed to maximise my prejudices. In the days when it was OK to smoke indoors, I never hired a person who asked “do you mind if I smoke” during an interview – yet both my parents smoked and I never thought it anything but perfectly natural.

      • jimbeam says:

        So Fridays are a difficult day for you?
        They get on my nerves, not because of the encouragement towards abstinence/fasting; only partly because of the imposed “no meat = pleasing to God” assumption; and very much because of the “obligation” and implication of sin, which is a completely unnecessary burden in my view, and contrary to scripture.

      • milliganp says:

        My objection to vegetarianism is that it is largely a dietary fad posing as a moral choice. If someone is a Buddhist, or from Southern India or a Carthusian I accept that their vegetarian diet is part of a culture or rule of life, but people who don’t like the fact that meat is chewy or think rabbits are pets annoy me. I have several vegetarian friends and family members who happily feed meat to their dogs and cats – qué?
        On the matter of Friday abstinence, it is allied to a fallacious assumption that meat raises the passions (aka Lust) and that all sexual desire is sinful.
        A few years ago a priest acquaintance changed roles, and organised his farewell dinner for what was the first Friday that abstinence was re-introduced in England and Wales. The kitchen of the restaurant didn’t expect to get 10 orders of Scallops followed by Sea Bass, hardly slumming it and a frankly meaningless gesture. When the Scallops arrived cooked with bacon some form of mutual absolution was agreed upon.

      • jimbeam says:

        When I was attempting to be a strict vegan I was not willing to buy meat for my dog. I got much stick for mistreating her (she did get very thin and meat hungry), however, unlike cats dogs are technically omniverous. Thanks to Christ and because of a physical need for meat, I could not cling to fanatical religious foodism.

        I have read that Gautama Buddha and his disciples were not vegetarian; they would take meat as alms if they were confident that the animal was not killed for their sake. I have also read that there was a schism when one of his disciples decided they should be vegan forest dwellers (ie. no contact with civilised society).

        Is it really a “fallacious assumption that meat raises the passions”? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it does, and I wouldn’t say it is fallacious. I understand there were particular reasons why Christians began to retreat into the desert and set up monastic religious communities and adopt semi-vegetarian diets — even though none of this should be necessary according to grace and dogma.

        As with the Jew’s preoccupation with the blood and life of the animal, the unclean, idolatry and adultery/fornication; the epistles of the NT (and the letter to the 7 Churches) talk much about foods offered to idols (and to some extent vegetarianism), with respect particularly to weak faith/conscience, sharing, and lust/greed. Is this less relevant today than it was then?

    • Vincent says:

      You two should meet.

  5. milliganp says:

    Regarding the statement about switching from contact lenses to spectacles raising the perceived IQ, would you give the advice to someone with perfect vision to get neutral glasses for an interview?
    And might this be why people with severe short sight seem “thick” (my words), you can’t make full eye contact through their lenses.

    • Quentin says:

      The study establishing this was done by the same person saying the same things to different audiences. The audiences were asked to rate the speaker’s IQ, and this revealed the difference in judgment. But it would be bad luck if a particular interviewer had a prejudice against the bespectacled.

  6. Ignatius says:

    Personally I find people who insist on eyeballing me to be fundamentally creepy types, obsessed with control and self importance….around here I do the eyeballing and no one else….clear?

  7. Geordie says:

    When I was teaching, I found it most annoying that the children who looked bright and intelligent, were often were anything but. It shouldn’t be allowed. I remember one boy who always appeared to be miles away and in a complete dream. As I got to know him, it dawned on me that he was engaged in much more complex ideas than anything I had to say.
    It taught me to accept the old saying; “Don’t judge the book be the cover”.

    • Singalong says:

      Yes, I have often found my automatic first impressions to be wrong, and further acquaintance has shown a very dull looking person for instance to be amazingly interesting and capable and lively, and someone giving an initial appearance of complete frivolity turning out to be very knowledgeable and thoughtful.

      One of the characteristics of Aspergers Syndrome as I understand, is inability or great difficulty in reading facial expression which makes it hard to relate and respond adequately to other people. There is a test which asks the assessee? to choose which emotion is being shown by a set of pictured faces, sadness, happiness, fear, horror etc.. I would find some of these very difficult to decide, as I think part of the decision when meeting actual people is based on the general situation, the context, stance, posture and so on.

  8. Ignatius says:

    Geordie,
    I have the same problem with students.

  9. John Nolan says:

    We also judge people on the way they speak. Regional accents are a positive minefield. East coast Scottish, southern Irish and Welsh are acceptable; Glaswegian and Belfast not. Cockney, Scouse and Brummie are a disadvantage, with Geordie not far behind; yet few took exception to the Hampshire burr of John Arlott and Lord Denning. Yorkshire is more acceptable than Lancastrian, which to the southerner always sounds comic (George Formby and Gracie Fields made sure of that).

    A Nottingham man took his cat to the vet, who asked ‘is it a tom?’ and received the reply ‘no, duck, I gorrim wi’ me’.

  10. Singalong says:

    Actors probably have the greatest skill in projecting themselves to advantage, which leads to consideration of how to distinguish what is sincere and genuine in people we meet for the first time, and also in deciding how far to go when we present ourselves to others.

    There are so many ways of looking and sounding as one chooses that it can be hard to know who is the real person, or often who is the real me. Too much care in presentation can lead to excessive self consciousness, too little and our contacts will think we do not care and have no consideration for others.

    Smiling when we feel low can help to produce feelings of cheerfulness, a good posture can assist with feeling confident, but going too far can come across as very artificial. Christians spreading the Gospel message must be sure not to overdo presentation, but useful tactics which might not come naturally often have to be learned. I wonder if the tent maker, St. Paul gave much thought to these during his missionary journeys, or was his inspiration completely spontaneous?

    • milliganp says:

      The bishop who ordained me had a personal hang-up about the fact that the words artifice and artificial were originally not pejoratives. They praised the skill of an artist who roused in us the feelings (emotional and intellectual) they had felt while creating their work. Thus the viewer could experience the beauty of Venice or the artist’s expression of a great moment in history or religion.
      We now use these words in the sense of cheapened or deceitful expressions. Surely the sincere use of oratory, albeit deliberately manipulative, by someone who genuinely believes is not a form of deceit?

      • Ignatius says:

        I guess that must entirely depend on what you mean by the phrase ‘albeit deliberately manipulative’ I’ve done a bit of preaching over the years mainly before I became a catholic and since then at Seminary for practice and analysis of speaking. It seems to me that one can attempt metaphors, give similie’s, recount anecdotes and draw parallels to the nth degree, these are all legitimate so long as they draw on truth where this truth has somehow connected with the lived experience of the preacher. The apostle Paul you will remember speaking not with wise words but with the power of the spirit and this I think is central. In my own experience the moment I veer off the track of what has been spiritual ‘verified’ in my own life experience , that is the moment authenticity is lost. It can be hard just to tell things as you know them without dressing stuff up in its best suit but that’s what we are called to do, tell the truth of our encounter with God

  11. Ignatius says:

    Ahh Singalong, at las we come down to the nub of it.
    A few thoughts: Paul in a famous bit of his corinthian letter (1 cor ch 4 v1-5) spoke of how he no longer cared much about what anyone thought of him and that he had a clear conscience. He knew that a clear conscience even didn’t mean much and he had reached the state where he no longer even judged himself.

    Yet elsewhere in his letters Paul is very rigorous as to behaviour, outer and inner virtue, fallenness, legalism, grace and freedom. As far as I can see Paul advocated a kind of inner abandonment to God. like Sister Therese of Liseux or Ignatius of Loyola there is a similar sense of a heroic casting of oneself on to God and then simply ceasing to care about the outcome….reckless trust in fact. However Paul was also a man of great personal discipline and training which would tend to indicate quite a high level of self control and the conscious application of the self.

    As far as I can see the Pauline example is very helpful giving both the innocence of the child and the discipline of the soldier. I know for myself when I spend time on the altar as acolyte or minister the host then I am conscious of the self I may present. Rather however than putting on a ‘fixed’ grin though I try to remember what it is that I am actually doing at that very moment….being involved in a miracle is what I am doing so perhaps there is good reason for allowing that sense of the miraculous to permeate the eyes and the heart.

    I find this also a good way to live ones life when in contact with others at work etc. Doing so, or trying to do so of course, quickly throws up the awareness of that famous ‘wretched man’ of Pauls in Romans 8 and so one gets a picture of the inner landscape of the Christian heart, inner joy and desire butting up against entrenched selfishness and the sheer inability to live ‘in the spirit’ as a fixed state hence the fall back position of the ‘grin and bear it – fixed smile approach’ we are all so familiar with!

  12. Horace says:

    Computers today can be programmed to identify individuals from photographs of their faces.
    As a one-time Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence I wonder if it would be possible to program a computer to recognise, in a similar way, “whether an individual is honest or not” ?

    • Quentin says:

      This is an interesting question. If computers could read bad or good characters from appearance it would mean that there was a correlation between, say, features and personal characteristics. I don’t know of any reliable evidence of this. But they can certainly identify features which correlate with our typical judgment. For example we tend to see people with wide faces as bad lots. But are they?

      • milliganp says:

        I’m suddenly minded of Terry Thomas with his moustache (in our culture a bad sign), the gap in his teeth and suspicious grin.
        However we normally detect deceit by body language, shifts in eye contact, face covering gestures clarity of voice etc. You can buy a machine which you attach to a phone line which uses speech indicators to detect possible deceit but I don’t know what level of reliability these achieve.
        Sadly it is entirely possible to be trained to be credible -otherwise politicians and salesmen could not do their jobs.As long as the truism “you can’t fool all the people all of the time” holds true there is some hope.

  13. Vincent says:

    We don’t seem to have talked much about incidentals. Do we react differently to men who wear good quality suits, particularly if they are wearing an old school tie. I am told that women who wear bright red are flaunting it. Dirty fingernails? Could I wear a bowler hat nowadays without causing a giggle? How about men with hair parted down the middle? Or those with long hair tied up on a bun? Candido is no more than a liberal compared with my prejudices.

    • Quentin says:

      Ah, incidentals! I have just raised my game by buying a new Casio F91-W digital watch. Cost all of £7 in Argos (expense is no problem for me).

      It’s been in production since 1991 and does everything a watch needs to do. But the real secret is that it was favoured by Al Qaeda. At one time the CIA were, apparently liable to pick you up if you wore one. It seems that the built in alarm could be wired up to delay timing a bomb, and every AQ member was trained to use one.

      But I preferred the comment that to wear one you either has to be socially secure to own such a cheap watch or a terrorist. I hope everyone can tell the difference. I have it because it tells me the day of the week, which I constantly forget. Bad news if you write for newspapers.

      • milliganp says:

        I typed “Casio F91-W” into Google and the only picture that was not a watch was Osama bin Laden! You maintain excellent company, perhaps not the watch to wear on a flight to New York.

  14. John Nolan says:

    I am prejudiced against tattoos – it’s like wearing a badge proclaiming ‘I am in socio-economic class D/E.’ Queen’s Regulations forbade officers to have them, although an exception had to be made for those risen from the ranks. A Met. policeman once told me that if they fished a woman’s body out of the Thames the presence of a tattoo clearly indicated that she was a prostitute. I would not employ anyone with visible body-piercing if the job involved contact with the public, which would include receptionists, bank tellers and check-out girls.

    In the 1980s to wear a moustache tended to mark you out as a homosexual, in London at least (I’m talking about men here). During the long-haired 1970s I had to adhere to QRs and was once mistaken for an actor.

  15. Singalong says:

    Jim Beam, Sept 10th, 8.35,

    We too were vegetarians for a time, influenced by a very keen relative, until eventually the smell of bacon lured us back. However, our dog by then had become used to a dried vegetarian mixture called Happidog, sometimes, later on, supplemented with a little meat and gravy. He lived a long, healthy and active life, hardly ever needing to see a vet except for annual injections, and died peacefully in his basket, just stopped breathing, at well over 17.

    I think the problem with meat now, is that many acres of crops have to be grown to feed animals, which cannot therefore be used to grow food crops for increasing numbers of humans, and the planet cannot sustain this inbalance. The large quantities of meat eaten by the average US citizen, and many others in affluent countries, could not possibly be replicated across the world, and will clearly have to be rationed.

    • milliganp says:

      Interestingly, the UK doesn’t make the top 20 for meat consumption, we eat 40% less per head than the US. China eat less than half as much as us again, and Africa and India eat half as much as China. There is probably a world balancing point where we have enough meat for a healthy diet but don’t have to turn South America into a giant farm producing soya and Beef.

    • tim says:

      It is – and will no doubt remain – rationed by price. But do not underestimate the possibilities for human ingenuity to improve the situation.

    • jimbeam says:

      Do you agree with this statement from the latest climate change petition from Avaaz?
      “We’re all different, and beautifully diverse. But whoever and wherever we are, climate change threatens everything we love, and brings all of us together. Let’s come together now. “

      • milliganp says:

        Surely the reality of climate change is that it will hit the poorest hardest and it will be a long time before well-to-do middle class western society suffers. There are already plenty of aspects of the worlds economy and environment where “we’re all in it together” rings a little hollow.

      • tim says:

        ““We’re all different, and beautifully diverse”
        Yes
        ” But whoever and wherever we are, climate change threatens everything we love, and brings all of us together.”
        No.
        Climate always changes (not so long ago we were terrified that a new ice age was about to start). More carbon dioxide (other things being equal) will tend to warm it up. So far so good. But it’s not clear that the results will be catastrophic – or even, during the coming century, necessarily on balance damaging. A hotter climate means fewer deaths from cold – which outweigh those caused by overheating. More CO2 in the atmosphere encourages plant growth and crop yields.

        It is correct that the poor are more exposed to the threats from global warming. But it is also true that they are more exposed to the effects of attempting to combat it. These are more imminent and more certain. In UK, for example, we are spending inordinate sums on subsidising uneconomic and unreliable methods of generating electricity. Consumers pay part of this directly- and some poor UK consumers may die because they can’t afford to keep themselves warm. Indeed in the coming winter (2014, not 2080) the UK Climate Act 2008 is likely to mean power cuts – directly causing deaths. And in the wider world, at least one policy to mitigate CO2 production has already caused Third World deaths – growing ‘biofuels’ on agricultural land sent up the price of food.

        The science is broadly sound – though its predictions have not been very successful so far. The economics and politics do not add up.

  16. Ignatius says:

    A little discussed aspect of climate change is that it seems to be the case over time that whenever the earth gets a bit warmer it becomes more not less fertile.

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