Love & Sex

Stop Trying to Flirt with Your Eyes, No One Can Understand You

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A new study found that men actually can't understand the facial expressions of women

As Tyra Banks has ingrained into dozens of young minds, it’s difficult to convey an emotion using only your eyes—but it's also the best, most seductive, model-esque way to communicate. Problem with that is, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding and confusion in the space between your eyeballs and someone else’s brain. 

A German study recently published in PLOS ONE found that—as gender stereotypes have taught us—men actually do have trouble reading the emotions of women; at least when they only have that look in your eyes to go on. The researchers presented twenty-two men, ages 21 to 52, with images of 36 different pairs of eyes (half men’s and half women’s) and then asked the subjects to identify the emotion behind the eyes. Each subject was put in an functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) to measure their brain activity during the task. 

In a show of solidarity, the men found it twice as difficult to identify the emotions in the female eyes than in the male ones, and took longer to decide on an emotion. The fMRI showed that the amygdala (the feelings-reading part of your brain) was more actively engaged when the subjects were looking at the eyes of other men. 

It’d be interesting to know what the results of the study would be if the positions were reversed. Once I was at a bar with a man-friend of mine, and he was (apparently) using his eyes to convey his need to be rescued from some less-than-pleasant dialogue with another bar patron and all I did was smile and like, waggle my eyebrows. I thought we were vibing from across the room—turns out I was unintentionally brushing off his panicked S.O.S. signals. 

The study results say the men were given two emotions to choose from in each eye reading, like “distrustful” or “terrified.” I tried to conduct my own personal, non-scientific experiment in which I studied my eyes in my computer’s webcam, trying to imitate distrust, then terror, then distrust, then terror. This accomplished very little. Most of the time I could barely even tell which emotion I was attempting to portray, and then I got distracted by one of my eyebrows. But a study of only 22 men (plus me) is hardly sufficient evidence for widespread acceptance of the Mars/Venus dichotomy. Next time someone of the opposite gender speaks, you still can't just shrug and yell, "Science!", because all it probably takes is a little added effort—and maybe use of your mouth.

Here’s my takeaway: communication is difficult enough and non-verbal cues leave a lot of room for error, no matter who you are. The good news is, we now have non-living, non-communicating companions like this terrifying life-size body pillow to cozy up to on cold nights.