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Prolonged Eye Contact (The Death Stare): Are We Still Baboons?

November 22nd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sometimes, in the landscape of our social environment, we encounter people who give us prolonged eye contact that may leave us feeling threatened. This kind of eye contact tends to arrive in our eyes by way of deadly glares or piercing gazes. Any way you cut the cake, these kinds of looks can be chalked up as ‘death stares’. In the animal kingdom this kind of eye contact behavior is quite normal. Silverback gorillas cast their steely eyed stares toward other gorillas as a territorial warning sign (i.e. – stay off our tribal turf or be prepared to incur the wrath of Kong). Flaring of the teeth is also a very common signal to protect territory (seen often in screeching baboons), but we will not be focusing much more attention on high-pitched screams and teeth-flashing behavior. Instead, let us restate that the animal kingdom and many of its creatures within have a strong tendency to demonstrate prolonged eye contact when it comes to the protection of territory, mates, and offspring.

            How does our animal kingdom eye contact discussion translate into human importance, especially in terms of the social scene and person-to-person understandings? To answer such a question we must first assert that we are not gorillas or chimpanzees – no longer is it permissible to interact with one another like we are enraged and ill-tempered baboons. Or is it permissible? Do we still not act with hotheadedness and irrationality – like the baboons? Of course we do. We are humans and hence have emotional systems and survival instincts that navigate us through our environment no matter who is present, just like the baboons.

            If you sit down in a circle of 10 people (including yourself) and casually shift your eyes around, you may notice that one of the 9 group members is giving you what appears to be the death stare – prolonged eye contact that sends a message that may be perceived as threatening. If you feel as if the death stare or piercing glare is being shot in your direction, it is important to ask yourself why. For example, “why am I being looked at in this manner”? Sometimes the answer is as simple as the fact that you have been looking at the wrong guy’s girlfriend or significant other. Other times, the answer is much less clear and you may never arrive at a suitable answer or conclusion. Some individuals may make prolonged threatening eye contact because it is their natural social tendency. There is rarely a clear-cut answer or reason for this kind of prolonged eye contact. Sometimes you just have to throw your hands up in the air and say “you know what, I have no idea why this person is looking at me like this”. In trying to understand every look and every gesture, a person would successfully drive their self up the wall.

            Nevertheless, there is often a reason as to why a person continues to make prolonged threatening eye contact with another person. On occasion, a look of death can have no meaning or be misinterpreted. From time to time, a person may be intensely fixated on a thought and just happen to be looking in your direction. More often than not though, an interpreted death stare from another person has a very logical reason behind it. Usually, there are 2 very poignant reasons; (i) competition that revolves around mate selection and acquisition, and (ii) competition to achieve the status of alpha female or alpha male. These two reasons alone have a tremendous natural pull in the animal kingdom (as humans, we exist in this kingdom).

            Always remember, death stares, stare downs, or looks or death can be misperceived and misinterpreted by any individual as a threat. Use the perceptual strengths of your mind to determine whether or not someone else is attempting to encroach on your existence through the glare of their eyes. If the message of threat is perceived to be real and you are forced into a corner, act accordingly – act like an animal. If, on the other hand, the message is unclear and your instincts tell you the environment is safe, pass the threatening look over and attribute it to an over-consumption of caffeine or nicotine on part of the other person. Let’s do our best to not imitate the agitated and loudly offensive actions of baboons. The social environment is supposed to be a relatively pleasurable one.

Have you encountered another human being that reminds you of a screeching baboon? Scan your environment, the baboon is there, waiting to give you the death stare.

We are animals,

Matthew Polkinghorne

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