Looking at Looking

Always look on the bright side. Things are looking up. Keep your eye on the prize.

Our language is full of expressions that equate optimism and achievement with our gaze. But is seeing the world through rose-colored glasses just a metaphor? New research suggests that our gaze has a lot to do with our optimism or pessimism, as well as our sense of control in achieving our goals.

In a series of studies, Brandeis University psychologist Derek Isaacowitz has shown that how and where people point their eyes quite literally reflects their outlook on life, and that they may also use their gaze to help them feel better and maintain control in their lives. He reviews his research in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

To study gazers and gazing, Isaacowitz uses eye-tracking technology usually used for studying reading. In his lab, participants view pictures and other material designed to elicit positive or negative emotions (or no emotion) on a computer screen, while their eyes are tracked using infrared. The system detects when a person’s eyes fall on a certain point for more than an instant, to distinguish true gaze fixation from the intermediate jumps of the eyes called saccades.

The results of Isaacowitz’s studies suggest exactly what the familiar maxims hint: A positive outlook is associated with gazing at positive things and averting one’s gaze from negative things.

In one study, participants were shown pictures of skin cancer next to pictures of faces with neutral expressions. Participants who were relatively optimistic, as indicated previously by a self-report measure, spent less time looking at the skin cancer pictures than pessimistic participants did. Even when the personal relevance of skin cancer to each participant (e.g. individual risk) was taken into account, it was an individual’s optimism or pessimism that determined what he or she gazed at during the experiment.

Other research has shown that emotions, especially positive emotions, become more important as people grow older. “See no evil,” the saying goes, but Isaacowitz’s research with older gazers shows that “see no angry” may be more the rule. In one study, older people focused preferentially on happy faces and looked away from angry faces. Younger people, by contrast, showed a preference for facial expressions of fear.

The optimistic tendency in older adulthood may reflect a pattern seen in other contexts in which time is perceived as limited. Comparing college seniors with college freshmen — people of roughly similar age but with a different sense of time constraints (i.e., seniors preparing to graduate experience more time limitation) — Isaacowitz found a pattern similar to his comparison of older and younger adults: Seniors were happier and looked less at unhappy faces than first-year students did.

Isaacowitz says his findings suggest not just that people’s gaze reflects how optimistic or pessimistic they are, but that they use their gaze as part of a process of emotion regulation — seeking out things that will boost their happiness and averting their eyes from things that could compromise it.

People also use gaze as a tool of motivation, focusing on attainable goals instead of goals that are not as achievable. Evidence for this comes from another study Isaacowitz conducted with childless women before and after age 40 — a widely socially perceived deadline for childbearing. His study compared the women’s gaze preference for pictures of puppies and kittens and pictures of babies. Women over 40 averted their gaze much faster from baby pictures than did their younger counterparts, suggesting that women who perceived themselves as past the deadline for having a child avoided looking at something that may cause them unhappiness or compromise their sense of control over other aspects of their lives.

“Gaze,” Isaacowitz writes, “is highly selective … and appears responsive to multiple motivational influences — from maintaining control to feeling good. Gaze is thus perhaps the most economical tool in motivation’s toolbox.”

To learn more about Isaacowitz’s research on gaze, see “Motivated Gaze: The View From the Gazer,” in the April issue of Current Directions.

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