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Why We Stare, Even When We Don’t Want To
June 22, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Why We Stare, Even When We Don’t Want To “When a face is distorted, we have no pattern to match that,” Rosenberg said. “All primates show this [staring] at something very different, something they have not evolved to see. They need to investigate further. ‘Are they one of us or not?’ In other species, when an animal looks very different, they get rejected.” The article is about why humans stare at disfigurements, but it may say something about why we stare at anyone who seems different. Previously: Seeing race: the Other-Race Effect.
posted by shetterly (39 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Metafilter doesn't do evolutionary psychology very well (and sure, I'd love to see more rigorous experimentation to backup some of the assertions), but I think there is so much to be learned about human behavior through this field.
posted by LordSludge at 1:05 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


This stuff about faces might be better explained a special case of a more general phenomenon. Why do we stare at traffic accidents? Why does the media love strange crimes? Why are there sideshow freaks?
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:09 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Noses get big for reasons to do with evolutionary shit.
posted by longsleeves at 1:11 PM on June 22, 2009


This isn't a very substantial comment, but: I'm reminded of reading about the experiences of a black person who moved to one of the more rural, monocultural, monoracial states. Although the people she met were generally polite and accomodating, she drew a lot of stares them, many of whom (they were quick to tell her) had never seen a black person.

But more than that, people (especially women) would come up to her and run their hands through her hair. When asked to stop they became indignant, protesting that they were 'just trying it out' because they'd 'never felt a black person's hair before' -- they couldn't seem to see that it was rude and invasive, or more likely, their (instinctive?) desire to get the lay of this new type of person overrode their natural manners.

Well, anyway, there's nowt so queer as folk.
posted by teresci at 1:29 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's great and all, but can we get some scientists looking into why I get stuck staring at random objects while my mind wanders? Because that shit is irritating. I'll suddenly realize that I've had my eyes locked on my stapler for, like, a full minute, and my brain kicks in and says "uh, so... really interested in that part of the desk are we? Why don't you look somewhere else?" and I have to respond "I'd love to, but damn, I'm sort of spaced out here and I don't know if I actually can look away anymore." to which, my brain justifiably responds "You're an idiot."

Which is pretty reasonable under the circumstances.

..."people can’t handle looking at a face that doesn’t move," Rosenberg said.

I would imagine that the built in component here is to make sure that what we are looking at isn't dead. Or a robot.
posted by quin at 1:50 PM on June 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm with you on the "locked staring at objects" thing, quin. One thing is staring without realizing it. But then you realize it, and you can't pull your stare off the object. Your eyes just get stuck.

/derail
posted by Bugbread at 1:54 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are we now trying to justify why people stare at people of other races? I understand the desire to stare, but that doesn't excuse it. People stare because they lack manners.

Shall we attempt to justify tendency to stare at cleavage?
posted by jabberjaw at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is a very timely article for me as I was just thinking about this the other day because of a person with a facial disfigurement that I met.
I was just walking across the parking lot when I saw a guy whose right side seemed to have no eye and just a black hole somewhere below where the eye should have been. I was very taken aback, and just stared at him trying to process his face. I knew somewhere in the back of my head that I was staring and that it was rude and I am not in general an insensitive person, but I somehow just could not help myself.
He smiled at me and doffed his hat and I felt quite ashamed of myself.
posted by peacheater at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll suddenly realize that I've had my eyes locked on my stapler for, like, a full minute, and my brain kicks in and says "uh, so... really interested in that part of the desk are we? Why don't you look somewhere else?"

You'd get on well with my cat.

I knew somewhere in the back of my head that I was staring and that it was rude and I am not in general an insensitive person, but I somehow just could not help myself.

I know the feeling. For me, the process that I think is happening, is my brain is thinking "wow, that's new, let me get a good long look at it so I can think about it and process it later" - trying to not look at it feels like you're denying your brain interesting new information that it craves.
posted by Jimbob at 2:08 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's very difficult to overcome the urge to stare and alternate urge to look away.

I worked with a fellow who had a fairly prominent facial disfigurement and port wine stain. I was used to it, it was no big surprise, I saw him everyday. He really enjoyed the sound of his own voice and would go on and on and on about the same topic for five minutes while I mostly listened to my internal monologue:

Make eye contact when he speaks to you. It's rude to look away or avoid looking at his face. You wouldn't want to be treated like that.

Oh, god, does it looks like I'm just staring at his wonky eye? Where do I look?

I am a horrible person

posted by Juliet Banana at 2:09 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


All the article really says is that we stare at stuff that's odd - and that this is probably primal.

Thank you, Department of the Bleeding Obvious.

(I'd still like to know why Brits stare far more rudely at strangers than Americans ever do. It's a counter intuitive observation - given national stereotypes - but I've noticed it countless times).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:11 PM on June 22, 2009


Do they stare far more rudely, or is it just that they stare more, and, as an American, your threshold for rudeness is lower?
posted by Bugbread at 2:13 PM on June 22, 2009


If that seems awkward, think of it this way: slurping soup isn't rude in Japan. It is in America. If an American slurped soup in America, I might say that he slurped rudely, but I wouldn't ask why Japanese slurp soup far more rudely in Japan. I'm sure staring in Britain is also rude, but is it less rude, hence staring more doesn't necessarily equal staring more rudely?
posted by Bugbread at 2:17 PM on June 22, 2009


I'm sure staring in Britain is also rude, but is it less rude, hence staring more doesn't necessarily equal staring more rudely?

Very good point, bugbread.

I was brought up (in the UK) to consider staring rude, as a rule - but I admit I'm pretty wobbly generalizing about when the stare becomes "locally" offensive.

It's just every time I return to the UK I'm surprised how Brits will take significantly longer to drop their impertinent gaze, compared with Americans, in similar situations (on the tube in the UK, on the street or subway in the US).

My private explanation is that you don't risk getting shot in the UK for locking eyes with a stranger in a possibly hostile manner! (But that's, of course, provocative, stupid - and a theory best kept under wraps!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:35 PM on June 22, 2009


*stands and stares, with that gormless air*
posted by adipocere at 2:35 PM on June 22, 2009


...you don't risk getting shot in the UK for locking eyes with a stranger...

*shaves head to mohawk, dons army field jacket*

You lookin' at me? You lookin' at me? Then who the hell else are you lookin' at? You lookin' at me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're lookin' at?
posted by quin at 2:48 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


But more than that, people (especially women) would come up to her and run their hands through her hair. When asked to stop they became indignant, protesting that they were 'just trying it out' because they'd 'never felt a black person's hair before' -- they couldn't seem to see that it was rude and invasive, or more likely, their (instinctive?) desire to get the lay of this new type of person overrode their natural manners.

This reminds me of the "oh you're pregnant, let me touch your belly" reaction so many people have. Ugh.

My parents were in Beijing recently - white people aren't a novelty for folks from the big city, but the hicks from the countryside visiting were constantly gawping at them.
posted by rodgerd at 2:56 PM on June 22, 2009


When I went to China in the early 90's, I experienced staring like I have never before and probably never will again. No blinking, no averting glances even when I stared back. Staring like "I'm trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for staring" staring.
posted by Bugbread at 3:01 PM on June 22, 2009


Thank you, Department of the Bleeding Obvious.

It is bleeding obvious. and yet, people beat up on themselves for being rude or creepy or obsessed when all that's happening is a human need to process new information. For me, it's helpful to know that when I meet someone with an unusual face and my brain tells me to stare, it's just an instinctual need to understand the face so I can see the person beneath it. It makes it much easier to smile or nod or simply look away casually.
posted by shetterly at 3:07 PM on June 22, 2009


I'm with jabberjaw; even if this explanation is accurate I don't think it changes what behavior is rude or creepy or obsessive. I know that there are various biochemical processes that cause my gut to produce gas - I know it's not a moral failing for this to happen - but that doesn't make me more enthusiastic for or less embarrassed by farting in public.
posted by XMLicious at 3:25 PM on June 22, 2009


This is sort of tangential, but I've noticed that very young babies take to me instantly if my general facial characteristics (skin color, hair, eyes) are similar to their mothers'.

And another tangent: many years ago I was in the monkey house at the Washington Zoo with my three kids. We, along with a bunch of other people, were watching the antics (wait, that's speciesist, ok, just let me tell the story) of a couple of dozen small monkeys in a large glassed-in cage. The monkeys ignored us, went about their business. My youngest was maybe 6 weeks old, he was sleeping, I was holding him against my shoulder, mostly covered with a blanket. He woke up, I turned him around. As soon as I turned his face toward the monkeys they all stopped what they were doing and came crowding around the glass closest to us to check out the baby who was about the same size as they were. To my untrained eye they seemed very happy to see him.
posted by mareli at 3:27 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I agree with jabberjaw and XMLicious.

There are, in fact, plausible explanations for, why example, one might stick one's hands in a person's hair without invitation or even why one might rape someone.

This does not make either of those things okay. Sure, the former is significantly less wrong than the other, but you get the point.
posted by kldickson at 3:32 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't remember if this is an actual quote, or simply something that my brain cobbled together. "Civilization is the process of overcoming our aversion to the other and preference for the us."
posted by strixus at 3:50 PM on June 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Doesn't explain Steve Forbes.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:56 PM on June 22, 2009


XMLicious, there is a middle ground between submitting to instinct and denying it. For me, it's much easier to do what society expects when I understand that I may have natural impulses to do something else. It means I can leave guilt out of the equation when I'm controlling the impulse.

Yes, in cultures where staring is rude, it's rude to stare. In those places, understanding the impulse to stare makes it easier to keep from staring. One of the saddest things people can do is look because their brain says to look, then jerk their gaze away guiltily as if what they've seen is too horrible to behold.

Which is not say that anyone who's done that should feel guilty. But by understanding the process, they may be able to do better next time.
posted by shetterly at 4:00 PM on June 22, 2009


To my untrained eye they seemed very happy to see him.

I'm sure he looked delicious.
posted by LordSludge at 4:04 PM on June 22, 2009


I had a similar experience, peacheater - the true staring phenomenon in this article is pretty stunning if you've experienced it. I remember daydreaming while scanning a crowd of pedestrians while sitting on the bus at a red light, and making eye contact with a man on the street who had an extremely peculiar disfigurement - one of his eyes was significantly higher set than the other. I was basically transfixed. He was looking at me, I was looking at him, and the wrongness of his stare was so fundamentally odd, I couldn't stop staring until the bus moved on.
posted by mek at 4:04 PM on June 22, 2009


I don't see the logical conflict. What was socially advantageous during our evolution (call it "natural, if you will) is different from what is socially advantageous nowadays (call it "civilized").

It's too bad the lizard brain doesn't know that, but that doesn't excuse anything. Restraining the lizard brain pretty defines "civilized" behavior. It does, however, help explain some of our base behavior, and that's worth a lot in itself
posted by LordSludge at 4:16 PM on June 22, 2009


..."people can’t handle looking at a face that doesn’t move," Rosenberg said.

This explains all those portraits that people paint...
posted by Avelwood at 4:21 PM on June 22, 2009


Avelwood, I grin at that, but it may help explain the uncanny valley and why magazines like Life and Look had trouble competing with color television.
posted by shetterly at 4:49 PM on June 22, 2009


..."people can’t handle looking at interacting socially with a face that doesn’t move," Rosenberg said.

Fixed.
posted by LordSludge at 5:16 PM on June 22, 2009


shetterly, I actually don't get why this explanation would make you feel better. The alternative is that the motivation for your glance is that you want to look, as an aspect of your own desires and tastes as opposed to a common human impulse, right?

And you're saying that you would feel guilty if the motivation you were resisting was a personal want / desire to look, but if the motivation you're resisting is a common human impulse then you don't feel guilty?

People can correct me if I'm wrong but I think you may be unusual in this respect. I would think that what most people would feel guilty over would be the failure to resist the temptation to look and the harm that might result to the subject of the stare, whatever the cause of the temptation was, because it would represent a problem with self-discipline.

I think you should examine why you would feel guilty for personally wanting to look (which I don't think you should feel), rather than resting your absolution from that guilt on purported facts that potentially could be pseudo-science or flawed research or a distortion of pop science.

I don't cotton to most of what's usually meant by the statement "science is a religion" (I'm an atheist) but it's situations like this where something from science is beginning to serve psychological purposes for people - a purpose that, if you'll pardon my frankness, looks a bit like forgiveness of sin - that I think are the rare cases where that statement has some truth to it.

(And by the way I'm not saying that one should never feel guilt about anything, but rather I think that guilt ought to stem from your actions - if you act in a way that is selfish or hurtful or irresponsible or vain or something - rather than from the nature of your preferences or desires.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:53 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


But more than that, people (especially women) would come up to her and run their hands through her hair. When asked to stop they became indignant, protesting that they were 'just trying it out' because they'd 'never felt a black person's hair before' -- they couldn't seem to see that it was rude and invasive, or more likely, their (instinctive?) desire to get the lay of this new type of person overrode their natural manners.

I can relate.

As my name would suggest, I'm a white guy who used to have a radically circumferential afro.

When I lived in the Midwest, people were kinda idiotic. I don't know how much of it was just people being ignorant, and how much of it was from never having seen a Jew before. But people would yell shit at me from their cars, stare at me everywhere I went, and ask me the most idiotic questions, like, "Is it real?" Which was absurd, because who the hell wears an afro wig to a supermarket in the middle of the summer?

It was a little different in NYC. Nobody asked me if it was real -- presumably, they had seen a white guy with a fro before. People still yelled at me from cars, but not nearly as much. People would stare at me when I walked into a room, but not for as long or with the same intensity. However, certain ethnic neighborhoods were bad to walk through. I lived in the Lower East Side for a year, which was difficult at times. Young Black and Hispanic men for some reason really liked to taunt me about my hair. I feel kinda racist saying that, but that's what actually happened. Usually it was when I walked past a group of 2 or more of them. They'd shout at me, taunt me, call me names. Once a young Hispanic man called me a "stupid fucking nigger." And this was for committing the grand crime of walking past he and his friends and minding my own business. Strangely, after I cut my hair, everyone in that neighborhood was really nice to me. I mean, really, some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you'll ever meet. Weird.

Anyway, regardless of where I lived, the worst, THE WORST people were always the drunks. And here was the white man's turn to shine. White fratboys were THE WORST. There's a certain kind of drunk -- I'll call him The Drunken Interactor. He wants to shout at you. He wants to tease you. He wants to backslap and pal around with you. But the one thing he refuses to do is leave you alone. And if he gets the sense that you do not value his company, things can get ugly fast. These guys ALWAYS wanted to touch my hair. Never saw anything wrong with it. Never had the slightest clue that maybe this was kinda rude. To their mind, my hair was there to touch, plain and simple. If I didn't want them to touch it, then why would I bother growing it? I actually once got into a barfight with a fratboy over my hair. True story.

Drunken white girls weren't much better. The really plastered ones were unbearable. Would get all silly and flirty and wanted to play with my hair and shit. Even if they were with their boyfriends. You'd think this would be okay, but actually it really wasn't. To them I was just a novelty. Bringing me home or even respecting me as a person never even entered into the picture. I've gotten a lot more action since I cut my hair.

Anyway, now that I've effectively offended everyone, I guess I'll stop typing for a while. Bottom line, there are things that override peoples' sense of politeness. Sometimes it's involuntary, and sometimes they pick up on social cues that tell them Now Is A Good Time To Be A Dick. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise really, since politeness is taught and rudeness is natural. We have to be socialized into it, and sometimes our training breaks down.

...

Goddamn I'm glad I cut my hair.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:18 PM on June 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


XMLicious, sorry I wasn't clear. I completely agree that people who act in a way that is hurtful & etc. should feel guilty. But what several people have described so far, the discovery that they're staring at someone whose face is unusual, is a perfectly natural response. It's easier to control a natural response if you understand it. In this case, when it happens, it'll be easier to smile or look away politely if you think, "Ah, I'm seeing an unusual face; I shouldn't stare" rather than, "Ohmigod! I'm staring! What's wrong with me? Look away! Look away!"
posted by shetterly at 6:19 PM on June 22, 2009


"People can correct me if I'm wrong but I think you may be unusual in this respect. I would think that what most people would feel guilty over would be the failure to resist the temptation to look and the harm that might result to the subject of the stare, whatever the cause of the temptation was, because it would represent a problem with self-discipline."

It doesn't seem that unusual to me. Imagine some other taboo desire (note: extreme examples chosen to make point clear, not because I think wanting to stare at people is in the same ballpark as these examples): wanting to kill people, wanting to commit rape, wanting to have sex with kids. I suspect most people who feel these desires feel guilty, even if they don't actually commit them. They feel guilty just for the desire. If one day you find out "what? EVERYBODY fantasizes about brutally murdering telemarketers? That's genetically hard-wired in?" then you won't feel guilty about those thoughts, because merely having them isn't a moral failing. Now, acting on them, of course, is, but the actual thought isn't.
posted by Bugbread at 8:19 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well I still can't relate to what you're saying shetterly but you've demonstrated that I was definitely misunderstanding your use of the word "guilt" here.

bugbread, from some video games and porn sites I've seen it would appear to me that many people indeed are able to think very intensely about killing people, wanting to commit rape, and wanting to have sex with kids without getting too overcome by guilt. That's why I would expect people to get along much easier with the much more mundane desire to stare at unusual people. But I have only a mediocre level of confidence in this conclusion, you very well could be correct.

I was relating alot of this to one or two Christian friends of mine who will very literally say that the mere thought of or temptation to do something is as material a sin as the act itself. In entertaining the thought of shoplifting, for example, you have sinned in the same fashion as if you'd actually committed the theft. But it's only a couple of people who talk like this, the majority of my Christian friends and acquaintances don't appear to consider the temptation alone to be a sin in and of itself.
posted by XMLicious at 8:50 PM on June 22, 2009


XMLicious, I believe you're thinking that the need to stare at something unusual is a choice, but it's more like flinching at a loud noise: it's a survival trait. Your brain is saying: "This is different. Friend? Foe?" What now!?!" You cannot do the polite thing before you look. You can only register that you have looked, and then look away as politely as possible.

Staring at unusual faces is not like any premeditated act. It has nothing to do with temptation. It's how our brains deal with surprise.
posted by shetterly at 10:13 PM on June 22, 2009


I guess I don't experience it as so involuntary. I can be aware of an unusual person in my presence and perhaps see it in my peripheral vision, and then I feel a strong desire to take a closer look. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

Similarly, if I'm speaking face-to-face with someone and they've got an unusual feature on their face like a mole or something unusual with one of their eyes, I'm usually able to prevent my eyes from focusing on that feature and meet their gaze as I normally would during a conversation.

It can definitely be annoying and require substantial effort to override those reflexes but it's possible. I worked with a guy once for nearly a year who'd had some sort of surgery on his left eye such that the iris had two different colors and a piece of it was missing. From a distance it looked a bit like broken glass or a little piece of a stained glass window. I frequently spoke face-to-face with him and it was a constant effort because I really wanted to stare intently at his eye... He wore glasses so I really would've had to visibly focus to see past the glare/reflection. I don't think I ever got a really good look in that entire year. I met him again a couple of years ago and he must've had more surgery because both eyes looked normal.

Hearkening back to jabberjaw's analogy it's like for a hetero male talking face-to-face with a woman showing a generous amount of cleavage. You have to have a really tight control of yourself: keep your head level, if your eyes start drifting down her face and neck you pull them back, etc. I've sometimes failed at that but fortunately in that case the stare is often welcome.
posted by XMLicious at 11:01 PM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh how I relate to the hair issues. I used to have very long (beyond waist length), stick-straight dark hair. Wearing it down in public was always a trial - people were constantly putting their hands in my hair, tugging on it to see if it was real. Men would make inappropriate comments about what they wanted to do to me while pulling on it. Asking these people to stop somehow made ME the bitch - these strangers honestly felt entitled to play hairdresser with me.

Eventually I cut it, but I still haven't lost the feeling that many people consider me and my hair public property that they can touch and judge. I've never been pregnant, but I imagine it's the same thing for an expectant mother.

I also have a slight scar on my left cheek, and when people inevitably notice it, many stare at it until I point out that yes, I have a scar on my face and give them a (made up) reason as to how I got it. I can make them feel ashamed for staring as much as I want, but their eyes always go back to the scar. Being gawked at for such a stupid thing doesn't make me feel particularly good about myself - I feel like a walking scar during these incidents, since they don't see me at all - so whenever I meet someone with an unusual feature or facial deformity I am polite as possible. Because life is hard enough without another hardship like that thrown on top of it.
posted by sephira at 6:45 AM on June 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


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