Gazing on Borrowed Time

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

By Wray Herbert

America is divided into two camps, and the two have almost nothing in common. No, not the red states and blue states. America is divided into the rubberneckers and the squeamish. When there is a dreadful pile-up on the freeway, rubberneckers will contort themselves in painful ways to catch any glimpse they can of the twisted steel and spilled fuel and carnage. The squeamish, meanwhile, tighten their grip on the steering wheel and stare straight ahead, creeping along until the suffering is out of sight.

I confess, I look. But I don’t look as hungrily as I once did, and I’ve worried that I might be losing my voyeuristic edge. But it turns out I’m not alone in this metamorphosis. New research is showing that we all use the way we gaze at the world as a precision psychological tool to amplify our mood, whether cheerful or doom-and-gloom. And what’s more, our tendency toward rubbernecking or squeamishness is closely connected to our sense of where we are in life’s journey--and of our growing or shrinking possibilities.

This emotional reckoning all begins with the eyes. It may seem like our gaze flits around capriciously, but apparently our eye movements are not as random as one would think. Scientists use sophisticated machines to track the eyes’ darting and stopping, and can tell when someone has “fixated” on something out there. We’re talking milliseconds here, but these fleeting fixations are a good proxy for a lingering gaze—or for avoidance.

In a series of laboratory experiments at Brandeis University, psychologist Derek Isaacowitz tested the connection between gaze and mood and motivation. He used a standard personality test to separate optimists from pessimists, and then had both look at pictures. Some were photos of emotionally neutral faces, while others were images of skin cancer, unpleasant and graphic in detail. The sunnier volunteers fixated on the cancer images much less than their gloomier peers, suggesting that they were using their gaze as a tool to avoid going over to the dark side. This was true even if the subjects had a family history of cancer, and therefore a reason to be preoccupied with the disease.

So, nothing but blue skies do I see. If Isaacowitz had stopped there, the study would have done little more than confirm some song lyrics. But he decided to explore the gaze-mood connection in more detail. In another experiment, for example, he compared older and younger adults, measuring their gaze as they looked at happy, sad, angry and fearful faces. The older participants had a clear preference for the happy facial expressions and avoided the angry faces. The young people lingered on the fearful faces. Isaacowitz speculates, in the April issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, that older people’s gaze may reflect an underlying motivation to regulate their emotions and feel good. As people age, they may increasingly feel like they’re living on borrowed time, and so pursue emotionally meaningful, uplifting experiences. They don't have time for car wrecks.

Isaacowitz wanted to make sure his results weren’t being queered by a general cognitive decline in the elderly. So he ran another experiment comparing two groups who were both young but had very different time perspectives: college freshmen and college seniors. He reasoned that the seniors, with graduation looming, might have a more constrained sense of the future. And indeed, the seniors spent less time gazing at negative images than did first-year students.

There is a theory in psychology that humans are motivated by a desire to control their world. As people age, they tend to focus on goals that are attainable, and to disengage from unrealistic goals, which can lead to failure and unhappiness. In a final experiment, Isaacowitz compared childless women over age 40 with those under 40. Though there are exceptions, 40 is generally accepted as the time when a woman’s biological clock stops ticking, and Isaacowitz wanted to see if gaze and mood were intertwined with age and life planning. He showed both groups pictures of babies, and also (to control for cuteness) pictures of puppies and kittens. The women who were past child-bearing age averted their gaze from the babies more quickly than the younger women, suggesting that they were conserving their emotional resources for realistic life choices. (They all fixated on the puppies and kittens.)

So it’s too simplistic to conclude that happy people gaze at happy images just to stay happy. After all, cute babies make most of us feel good, so we turn away from them at the expense of our own momentary happiness. It appears that gaze is much more complex and powerful than that, a tool for nothing less than goal achievement and control in life. Now that's something for aging rubberneckers to ponder.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 5:28 AM


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