The weird way in which trust is actually in your eyes

Do you think you have full control over deciding whether to trust someone or not? Guess again!

Among the visual cues we use for non-verbal communication, there’s the usual suspects like body language and facial expressions. They govern much of how we feel about each other, and can be both voluntary and involuntary. But there’s one thing we do when encountering new people that we have absolutely no control over, and that we mostly don’t even notice. It’s all in the eyes – or rather, the pupils.

Researchers in the Netherlands performed an eye-tracking study among 69 university students to see if our eyes held the key to establishing trust.

The participants were shown a short video of someone’s face looking straight at them, and then given the (hypothetical) choice to transfer money to this virtual partner. The experiment was set up to allow participants to judge the trustworthiness of each virtual partner in a very short amount of time.

More pupil-mimicry meant higher donations

The eye-tracking results showed that the participants would closely mimick the behaviour of their partner’s pupils, contracting and dilating along with them – or staying perfectly still.

Interestingly, the scientists found that the students to mimicked their partners’ pupils most were also most likely to donate money to said partners. This indicates that pupil tracking plays a significant role in determining whether to trust someone.

Here’s one stare you won’t be able to mimick.

We mimick each other all the time

Adopting another’s stances and features isn’t unheard of in communication. Apart from linguistic features we perform without realising it, such as accomodating your conversation partner by adapting your word choice and tone of voice to the person and situation, there are also non-verbal things we do to “establish rapport” with someone we’re speaking to:

Mimicry is common in social interactions. We establish rapport by adopting another’s postures, facial expressions and even heartbeat. “In emotion research, there’s a lot of focus on facial expressions,” Kret says. “Given that we spend so much time looking at each other’s eyes, I think we can learn a lot more from the pupils.”

There may be a lot we don’t yet understand about human interaction, and research like this can give us vital information about the things we do every day, like engaging in conversation.

We can only hope that insights like the one from this study won’t end up being used to manipulate people in things like advertising. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if pilot studies are already underway to try to get some practical application of this effect going.

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