Rather than a behavior to stimulate conflict, staring people down is actually a reflex behavior to establish dominance, according to researchers.
Other primates typically resolve the dominance hierarchy not through fighting, but through staring contests, suggesting an evolutionary aspect to the behavior.
And apparently, humans are like that, too. David Terburg and colleagues of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands wanted to examine whether staring for dominance is automatic for people.
For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, participants watched a computer screen while a series of colored ovals appeared. Below each oval were blue, green, and red dots; they were supposed to look away from the oval to the dot with the same color.
What they didn’t know was that for a split-second before the colored oval appeared, a face of the same color appeared, with either an angry, happy, or neutral expression. So the researchers were testing how long it took for people to look away from faces with different emotions.
Participants also completed a questionnaire that reflected how dominant they were in social situations.
People who were more motivated to be dominant were also slower to look away from angry faces, while people who were motivated to seek rewards gazed at the happy faces longer. In other words, the assumptions were correct — for people who are dominant, engaging in gaze contests is a reflex.
“When people are dominant, they are dominant in a snap of a second,” said Terburg.
“From an evolutionary point of view, it’s understandable — if you have a dominance motive, you can’t have the reflex to look away from angry people; then you have already lost the gaze contest.”