STAY FIT: A shifty-eyed child is smarter

The Observer


A new study shows that children who avert their gaze while adults are speaking to them may in fact be concentrating on taking in the facts rather than being distracted by someone’s face.

‘Gaze aversion’, as it is known, seems to help the mind absorb difficult detail in ways that are not yet fully understood.

Researchers have carried out two school studies in which children were taught to look away when spoken to, in order to see whether they can take in more facts than others who hold the teachers’ gaze. The results from one study, to be published shortly, will show that the youngest primary children do better if they turn away. This could also apply to adults.

For centuries, people who don’t meet the eyes of those speaking to them have been seen as shifty or underhand. Psychologists now believe that signals picked up from looking at someone’s face may interfere with simultaneously performing demanding mental tasks.

It is possible that looking away helps the brain to avoid processing unnecessary, distracting information that will slow up the task in hand.

There is a general assumption, too, that people who avoid eye contact are lying. Several studies have now shown that this is a highly unreliable indicator of deception. Some liars actually use their eyes to project an image of honesty because they know that looking away will be interpreted negatively.

Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, has carried out studies into gaze aversion in young children to see if they were using it to control their ‘mental load’.

In comparing a group of 30 five-year-olds with a group of eight-year-olds she found that the older children looked away more from the questioner’s face when they were thinking about a difficult query. They didn’t look away when it was being asked, just when they were trying to frame their response.

“Adults often interpret looking away as a sign of disengagement or lack of interest, but our research points to the idea that it is a technique for helping them to concentrate. Rather than being discouraged, it should actually be encouraged,” said Doherty-Sneddon.

She believes that gaze aversion is a skill that comes with age rather than being innate. Younger children rely more on looking at the face of an adult for visual cues, while older ones have learnt to rely more on the verbal information they are given.

It could be that children who spend a lot of time looking away are actually demonstrating their readiness to learn rather than demonstrating, as is commonly assumed, that they are bored and have switched off.

“We now have evidence that training children to avert their gaze does help,” said Doherty-Sneddon. “We start by encouraging them to look away when they are thinking about the answer to a question or trying to concentrate. This does seem to work at the beginning of primary school, and by the end of it they are doing it of their own accord.”