Thursday, 10 January 2013

Blue eyes, facial shape, and perceived trustworthiness

A new paper suggests that Czechs tend to view brown-eyed people as more trustworthy than blue-eyed ones, although the difference seems to be due to differences in facial structure between brown- and blue-eyed people; an article in Scientific American covers this new paper fairly well.

I will add that the location of the sample (Czech Republic) is interesting, as it is intermediate between the Baltic area (where light eye pigmentation reaches quasi-fixation, and, hence, presumably, light eyes are not viewed with any suspicion) and southeastern Europe and Anatolia (where there is well-documented folklore about the association of eye pigmentation with the "evil eye").

I had encountered an explanation for this phenomenon in a work by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart on ancient color terminology, in which an argument was made that in predominantly dark-eyed peoples, light eyes -because of their rarity- may have an indirect association with glaucoma and viewed suspiciously for that reason -perceived chance of morbidity; the Wikipedia article suggests the phenomenon is explained on the basis of encounters with light-eyed foreigners who might be unaware of cultural norms against direct staring. But, the frequency of different eye colors in Czechs today is probably fairly balanced, making either explanation unsatisfactory.

Getting back to the article at hand, it appears that -at least in men- blue eyes are associated with a suite of other facial features. Razib offers the suggestion that the possible disadvantage conferred by reduced "trustworthiness" may be compensated in another way through pleiotropy, and the authors suggest:
The trade-off between a preference for colorful and visible physical features and the advantage of a trustworthy-looking face might have contributed to the high variability of European eye and hair color.
But, I'll get back to the possibility that the phenomenon may be driven by a historical process, i.e., the encounter between peoples who differed statistically in eye pigmentation and other facial features.

The picture on the left is from the Gospel Book of Otto III and is about 1,000 years old. Now, all eyes appear conventionally painted as brown dots here, but we can notice that the different provinces are painted with different hair color, with Sclavinia being darker than Germania and lighter than Gallia and Roma. This might make some sense, since Germanic peoples are thought to have originated in northern Germany/southern Scandinavia, and Slavs in C/E Europe (perhaps somewhere between Poland and Ukraine).

This raises the possibility that early Slavs were phenotypically somewhere in the middle of the European pigmentation continuum, although their exact position therein might only be determined with ancient DNA evidence. Today, the lighter-pigmented Slavs are probably those close to the Baltic (e.g., Russians and Poles), the darker ones from the Balkans, perhaps indicating different types of gene flow ("northern" Germanic/Baltic/Finno-Ugrian vs. "southern" Thraco-Illyrian-Greek).

If this is correct, then the slightly negative association of blue eyes in the present Czechs might be a culturally-transmitted vestige of inter-ethnic contact during the medieval period. A possible test would be to repeat the experiment with the Czechs' German neighbors, in which the process ought to operate in reverse -if my hypothesis is correct.

PLoS ONE 8(1): e53285. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053285

Trustworthy-Looking Face Meets Brown Eyes

Karel Kleisner et al.

We tested whether eye color influences perception of trustworthiness. Facial photographs of 40 female and 40 male students were rated for perceived trustworthiness. Eye color had a significant effect, the brown-eyed faces being perceived as more trustworthy than the blue-eyed ones. Geometric morphometrics, however, revealed significant correlations between eye color and face shape. Thus, face shape likewise had a significant effect on perceived trustworthiness but only for male faces, the effect for female faces not being significant. To determine whether perception of trustworthiness was being influenced primarily by eye color or by face shape, we recolored the eyes on the same male facial photos and repeated the test procedure. Eye color now had no effect on perceived trustworthiness. We concluded that although the brown-eyed faces were perceived as more trustworthy than the blue-eyed ones, it was not brown eye color per se that caused the stronger perception of trustworthiness but rather the facial features associated with brown eyes.


No comments:

Post a Comment