Study Reveals ‘Red Eyes’ Associated with Sadness, Poor Health, and Unattractiveness

A recent study published in Ethology finds that people with bloodshot eyes are considered sadder, unhealthier and less attractive than people whose eyes are white.

“Red, ‘bloodshot’ eyes are prominent in medical diagnoses and in folk culture”, said lead author Dr. Robert R. Provine from the University of Maryland.  ”We wanted to know if they influence the everyday behaviour and attitudes of those who view them, and if they trigger perceptions of attractiveness.”

Bloodshot eyes occur when the small blood vessels in the conjunctiva 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 sign of a person’s emotional and biological state.

“If you met a friend with bloodshot eyes it may be unclear whether your friend has an infection, tired, or has allergies. you should offer sympathy or medical assistance because red eyes may be a result of lack of sleep, weeping allergies or an infectious disease,” says Dr Provine.

The Experiment

In the first empirical test to discover the perceptions and behavioural implications of red eyes,  208 volunteer students, with an average age of 20.6 years, were tested from the University of Maryland, Baltimore Maryland.

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 these people were. The results revealed that people with red eyes appear to be sadder, less healthy, and less attractive compared to those with whiter 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 coloration as an indicator of either health or emotion. “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.

Dr Ashraf of the Atlanta Vision Institute adds that many conditions causing chronic redness can be helped through medical treatment.  He states the most common causes of chronic redness are due to dry eyes and allergic conjunctivitis.  These two conditions can easily be helped through frequent lubrication of the eyes or eye medications.  He also points out that he occasionally sees patients with chronic red eyes that have no specific etiology.  Surgery maybe an option for some of these patients and states this is quite popular in countries such as South Korea.

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