Suspects who look directly into a policeman's eyes during a line-up are far more likely to appear guilty to law enforcement officials than those who avert their gaze. That's according to a new study put out by the University of Sydney in Australia.
Participants involved in this study were first shown a short video with various people's faces. After this screening, they were asked to choose the people they saw in the video in the police line-up. Participants who failed to pick the right people ended up simply choosing someone who was staring directly into their eyes.
Interestingly, when all the police line-up actors were asked to close their eyes, the participants didn't favor any one perpetrator over another. Unfortunately, police can't ask people in a police line-up to close their eyes in real life, mainly because eye colour is a key indicator for many witnesses.
This finding seems to run counter to common experience. When most people think of a guilty person, they often think of someone who squirms around and looks at the ground. Yet this study claims that someone looking at the floor has a better chance of getting off the hook than someone looking right into your face.
Researchers explained this anomaly by saying that staring directly into someone's eyes often inspires feelings of familiarity and confidence. That's why looking directly into another's eyes is usually a good thing. However, in the context of a police line-up, feelings of familiarity often work against those being examined.
As with most things in life, this strange fact has its roots in human evolution. Our brains have been hardwired over the centuries to look favorably upon people that stare into our eyes for a long period time. Jessica Taubert, the head researcher on this project , told reporters, "In line-up recognition tasks, the face looking directly at you is more likely to look familiar than faces looking away from you." For someone who is unsure who to choose in a line-up, this feeling of familiarity can often lead them to choose the person staring into their eyes.
Although you definitely don't want to practice direct eye contact in a police line-up, direct eye contact has numerous benefits in the outside world. One 1989 study actually showed that two opposite sex strangers who stared into each others eyes for long enough were more likely to have a successful relationship than those who did not.
The main reason people have such a strong reaction to staring directly into another person's eyes has to do with a chemical known as phenylethylamine. Phenylethylamine is well known in the medical community as a natural stimulant that enhances our mood with feel good hormones like dopamine. In addition to staring someone in the eyes for at least two minutes, many foods and drinks can produce extra phenylethylamine in our brains. Believe it or not, one major source of phenylethylamine is dark chocolate.
Everyone involved in this Australian study hope their work will help people in the fields of psychology and criminal justice better understand and prevent wrongful convictions in the future.