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March 17, 2011

Is beauty found in the whites of the eyes? Study reveals ‘red eyes’ associated with the sad, unhealthy and unattractive

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Chelsea Haddaway
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Ethology Media Contact
Ben Norman
Life Science Publicist
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Beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, but a new study reveals that the reverse is also true; unattractiveness is in the eye of the beheld. Research by Robert Provine, professor of psychology, published in Ethology finds that people with bloodshot eyes are considered sadder, unhealthier and less attractive than people whose eye whites are untinted, a cue which is uniquely human.

“Red, ‘bloodshot’ eyes are prominent in medical diagnoses and in folk culture”, said Provine, the study’s lead author. “We wanted to know if they influence the everyday behavior and attitudes of those who view them, and if they trigger perceptions of attractiveness.”

Bloodshot eyes occur when the small blood vessels of the usually transparent conjunctiva membrane on the surface of the eye become enlarged and congested with blood, giving a red tint to the underlying sclera, the “white” of the eyes. Redness of the sclera is believed to be a general but important sign of a person’s emotional and biological state.

“If you met a friend with bloodshot eyes it may be unclear whether you should offer sympathy or medical assistance because red eyes may be a result of weeping, allergies or infectious diseases,” said Provine. “Comments from our colleagues also suggest that red eyes prompt feelings of discomfort, ranging from increased monitoring of their own eyes to a hint of sympathetic tearing.”

In the first empirical test to discover the perceptions and behavioral implications of red eyes, Provine’s team, which included undergraduate researchers from UMBC, tested 208 volunteer UMBC students. The volunteers comprised of 93 males and 115 females, with an average age of 20.6 years.

The volunteers were shown 200 images of eyes, half with clear white sclera and half with sclera tinted red by digital image processing. The volunteers were asked how sad, healthy or attractive the owners of the eyes were. The results revealed that people with reddened eyes appear sadder, less healthy, and less attractive compared to those with whiter, untinted eyes.

This is the first study to demonstrate that eye redness is perceived as a cue of emotion.

Humans appear to be the only species which uses eye colouration as an indicator of either health or emotion. This is because other primates lack the background of white sclera necessary to make the reddened conjunctiva visible.

Sclera colour provides even casual, untrained observers with a quick estimate of the emotional and health status of an individual and the study’s ratings of attractiveness suggest that this information does influence our behaviour.

“Standards of beauty vary across cultures, however, youth and healthiness are always in fashion because they are associated with reproductive fitness,” said Provine. “Traits such as long, lustrous hair and smooth or scar-free skin are cues of youth and offer the beholder a partial record of health. Now clear eye whites join these traits as a universal standard for the perception of beauty and a cue of health and reproductive fitness. Given this discovery, eye drops that ‘get the red out’ can be considered beauty aids.”


This paper is published by Ethology. To request a copy of the paper contact or (+44) 0 1243 770 365.

Full citation: Provine. R, Cabrera. M, Brocato. N, Krosnowski. K, “When the Whites of the Eyes Are Red: A Uniquely Human Cue,” Ethology, March 2011, DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2011.01888.x

About the Journal: International in scope, Ethology publishes original research on behaviour including physiological mechanisms, function, and evolution. The Journal addresses behaviour in all species, from slime moulds to humans.

Image: The image above is available on request. The image should be credited to R. Provine.

Posted by chelseah at March 17, 2011 4:00 PM