What Red Eyes Signify

Redness of eyes has long been considered a marker of various diseases of the eyes. However, the role of red eyes in our daily life has not been examined so far. Of all the primates, humans are the only species that exhibit reddening of the eyes. The researchers of the present study examined the socially significant signals that red eyes convey to an observer. “Individuals with reddened sclera were perceived as sadder, less healthy, and less attractive than individuals with normal (white) sclera.”

The white portion of eyes, the sclera, is covered with a transparent membrane known as the conjunctiva. The sclera is white only in humans while in other primates, it is brownish in color. Against the white background of the sclera, dilatation of blood vessels in the conjunctiva is visible as redness in eyes. Red eyes generally indicate disorders of eyes such as conjunctivitis, scleritis, glaucoma etc. Apart from such diseases of the eyes, the present study examined the fact that red eyes also convey some emotional signals such as sadness and ill health. The study also looked at whether white eyes appear attractive and could be added to the list of other facial features considered as signs of beauty and fitness.

* The study included 208 volunteers, of which 93 were men and 115 women.
* One-hundred images of white eyes were collected. Copies of all of them were edited using Adobe Photoshop to make them red in color.
* Both white eyes and their counterpart red eyes were shown to the volunteers on a computer screen and they were asked to estimate the sadness and healthiness in those eyes.
* Volunteers were also asked to grade the attractiveness of eyes using a seven-point rating.

* The participants rate “individuals with reddened sclera as significantly more sad than those with untinted, white sclera.
* Volunteers graded people with white eyes as more healthy.
* White eyes were rated as more attractive, with the average score being 3.88, while this score was only 2.68 for red eyes.
* All the findings were almost similar in both male and female volunteers.

The present study proves that, compared to red eyes, white eyes are perceived as more attractive. People with white eyes are considered healthier and happier. A person seeing a friend with red eyes might think of emotional rather than health factors. He may conclude that the friend needs sympathy rather than medical assistance. People in the beauty and fashion industry can look attractive and happy by keeping their eyes white. This can be made possible by using eye drops containing drugs such as oxymetazoline, which constrict the blood vessels in the conjunctiva. If one does not wish to use eye drops, red eyes can be masked with dark eyeglasses.

For More Information:
When the Whites of the Eyes are Red: A Uniquely Human Cue
Publication Journal: Ethology, 2011
By Robert P Provine; Marcello O Cabrera
From the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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