Indianeyesed Stranger Danger

One of the hilarious Indian prejudices you invariably inherit is that people with small eyes tend to be shifty characters. See all the thieves and unsavories?, you will be asked rhetorically by all-knowing uncle the keen student of humanity who once read a book, tiny scheming eyes they will have all of them. I’m telling you, then the confirmatory head wobble and that hand-swish that conveys lo-tis-done, big eyes means their bad intentions will be found out no? But uncle... But what, you yourself tell, have you ever met a beady-eyed trustworthy person? All plants are green. No non-green things are plants. It is like that only. You know who did this logic? You know? It was Socrates. You mean Aristotle. Yes that’s his surname. In their defense, all Indian prejudices make that extra effort of providing the closure of personalized advice, hence the inevitable moral, don’t squint, your eyes will get stuck like this small and then you will become a criminal.

For a long time, I’d assumed this was small-eyes nonsense was part of the superstimuli of neoteny. Innocent babies have large heads and large eyes. Hence Mickey vs Mortimer. It fits. Do we find adults with large expressive eyes trustworthy but in a somewhat harmless/innocent/childlike way, not a noble upstanding way? As long as this is true, it remains an irrational stunted inertia that glorifies childhood as the ideal state of existence. But from Joe Henrich’s book, I’ve picked up a fascinating fact that might provide an alternate perspective, one that confers some sort of teleonomic rationality to these social norms of trusting large-eyes. It has to do not with the size of the eyes but the composition. He mentions the cultural-gene coevolution of cooperation, communication, and the whitening of our sclera, an adaptive trait that made it easier to follow someone’s gaze and facilitate more expressive nonverbal communication. The cooperative eye hypothesis is not only that the contrast between our sclera and iris increased to become more communicative, we also developed the ability to pick up on gaze the way other primates without lightened sclera never did (they will follow your gaze when you move your head but not when you move your eyes). Gaze = attention. Attention = intention.

It’s still a pretty big step from here to ‘can’t see the whites of your eyes, don’t know your intention, you’re shifty’, although I suppose Henrich’s theory of coevolution would support an idea of selective pressure against people with non-transparent eyes and therefore gradual evolution of large eyes? Then what went wrong with the correlation? Either it never existed and the cooperative eye theory is wrong or has nothing to do with small-eye-prejudice. Or like the Machiavellian hypothesis, we invariably became smart enough to beat it? Or better communication took over and rendered sclera irrelevant? Gladwell’s book about how crappy we are at reading strangers has the horrifying tale of Amanda Knox, who was convicted for the murder of her roommate while living in Italy, because her behavior was culturally out of place and misinterpreted by the prosecutor as cold, lackadaisical and guilty. He connects this with Tim Levine’s experiment that found we are utter garbage at identifying liars. More specifically, we are great at identifying transparent liars who match our stereotypes of stuttering, shifty eyes, no eye-contact, over-explaining, nervousness etc, and utter garbage at identifying those who are mismatched, like Amanda Knox. It gets worse, experts like judges and police detectives perform even worse than regular students.

This has always been a huge paranoid fear of mine after watching too many courtroom dramas where judges proclaim innocence or guilt based on how much remorse the accused displayed. Whether I was guilty or not, I’d probably put all my energy into holding it together and maintaining emotional equilibrium so my Amygdala doesn’t end up running the show, like Andy Dufresne, and then be found hopelessly guilty by a judge really pissed off or chilled I wasn’t rolling on the floor weeping. More practically, relationships are very difficult and I keep getting accused of being emotionally distant or cold. That’s certainly a possibility. Even if my argument is that my particular brand of affect is mismatched with the textbook expressions, one could argue back that it takes a reduced level of affect to be able to deviate from the textbook in the first place, and how would I know the difference unless someone sticks an electrode into my Limbic system and checks the excitation?

I think of people like me and Amanda Knox as collateral damage in an otherwise rational calculation by society that has agreed to certain rules of emotional affect and codified them as cultural textbooks such that each person doesn’t need to perform an individual calculation. Take Tim Levine’s experiment. There are liars who look like they’re lying, and honest people who look like they’re honest. We have no trouble with these two. Amanda Knox, an honest person who looks she’s lying, is hard done by our assumption that a person who looks like a liar is lying, but as long as she is greatly outnumbered by liars who look like they’re lying, the damage to her is less than the damage we would suffer by thinking twice about everyone who looks like they’re lying. Similarly for the honest-looking, we lose out on the benefits of cooperation if we were paranoidly searching for the sociopaths like Bernie Madoff who look honest but are actually just excellent liars. As long as the sociopaths are greatly outnumbered by honest-looking people who are actually honest, we’d prefer to default to trust. Utilitarianism is as tyrannical as it is fair. That’s why I find it more a biological phenomenon than a moral philosophy.

But is this cultural norm like chamberpots, smoking on airplanes, and Indian uncles? Outdated, unpleasant-smelling, and lazy? What if the most balanced lesson to learn from anthropological explanations of social norms by observing remote hunter-gatherer tribes is not one of inevitability or utility but of biological boundary conditions and loss mitigation strategies? 70% of communication is nonverbal, and our bodies underwent a physiological and neurological change to make us better at transmitting as well as receiving and decoding this. That’s a biological boundary condition. 1) We’re good at it, 2) We’re trapped by it 3) We’d lose something by discarding it. That’s very different from saying we’re built for nonverbal communication and it works and that’s that, put all the small-eyed reprobates in small-eye prison where they can have a blood magic orgy with Amanda Knox.

The fallacy of equating inscrutability with subterfuge is amplified in a globalized world. Paul Ekman’s famous experiments show there is no such thing as a universal set of facial expressions. Isolated pre-literate tribes in Papua New Guinea don’t identify the typical expressions of sadness, anger, happiness we stereotype. It’s one thing to note that dissimilar cultural backgrounds cause less efficient communication in multi-ethnic cosmopolitan societies that lead to segregation purely for convenience and ease of interaction, that’s bad enough. It gets worse when we actively misinterpret nonverbal communication because of difference in cultural backgrounds. Back to Amanda Knox, whose friends might have accurately identified her expressions, maybe even people from Seattle, generously maybe all Americans. But in Italy, people were outraged. For most of our history, this didn’t matter. We weren’t likely to be hanging around in Italy long enough to be accused of witchcraft, usury, or ritual sex-murder. Now we have the option, and we’re all the richer for it, except we’re still evaluating people using our gut, noses, and the patterns of pig entrails in a tea cup made from the thigh bones of chickens that died from shark attacks.

The idea isn’t to discard it. We’re good at it, a fine-tuned machine built for it. What we gain in precision we would lose in speed, effort, and overfitting. But the equilibrium has shifted, we aren’t operating on a digital switch, it’s a curve and the marginal returns now feel higher on the side of intelligently designed explicit cooperative adaptations, a universal grammar for both verbal and nonverbal syntaxes for instance. Even if this is unfeasible to institutionally or systematically overcome, at least it’s an exciting skill to develop, the ability to understand cross-cultural nonverbal communication, like learning a foreign language. Watching a bunch of Korean movies recently had us wondering how similar they are to Indian emoting. I’d reverted to a simplistic model of Oriental vs Occidental to explain away the over-the-top boiling-pot variety of emotions we have vs the muted, understated variety of Western film, but this is likely both wrong and oversimplified. If our understanding and expression of emotion has taken a fundamentally different route over the millennia of cultural branching, the exciting lesson from foreign film is the acting itself and not the higher order gleaning of cultural insight from the difference in style of language, accent, sets, costumes, story-telling and directorial decision-making. It strikes me now that all this is exceedingly obvious to people who religiously watch and enjoy foreign films. Is this why more people enjoy foreign film than foreign novels?