‘The Emotional Eye: Red Sclera as a Uniquely Human Cue of Emotion’ – Commentary

When I came across this paper by Provine et al. (2013), I wanted to write about the content the way I usually do, i.e., describe what was done and the main conclusions that were drawn. However, I soon found myself making notes more about the form than the content, criticising the paper. The authors investigated the effect of reddening the sclera of one or two eyes in photographs. They presented their participants with the images and asked them to rate them according six basic emotions (“anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and surprise”, p. 994).

First of all, I find the title of this article a tad misleading. It lacks a key word, in my opinion, and that is “valence”. The main finding presented is that the red sclera in humans seems to be a cue of emotional valence, rather than simply a cue of emotionality, indicating whether the emotion displayed is negative or positive (respectively, associated positively and negatively with “increased conjunctival blood flow”, p. 996).

Besides, the “uniquely human” aspect of the association between sclera colour and emotion was actually not addressed in the research; it was merely explained in the introduction. Again, I don’t think that it was incorrect to include the phrase in the title – it is partly what attracted me to download the article – but misleading.

Why these emotions and not others?

Onto the Introduction. Having a psychology background, I cannot fail to notice the lack of citations at the point where the authors list the six emotions they included in their study. They are ignoring a massive amount of research on emotions and the associated facial expressions. Even naming just one study by the famous Paul Ekman would have sufficed to show that they did not just pull these categories of emotions out of nowhere, and that they are giving credit where credit is due.

There is also no mention of either actual or possible gender differences in the perception of facial expressions of emotions. I think it is problematic as gender is later bluntly presented as an intergroup factor in the data analysis, yet the reason for its inclusion is not explained.

According to the Methods, the researchers used a pen and paper survey to collect data. I wonder whether they had trouble. In my experience, participants can be somewhat annoyed and tell you about errything that is wrong with the choices you made.

Alright, now for the Discussion. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Except maybe for what some might consider nit-picking; I say it is proper spelling.

A classic.

In this word, u is a consonant, not a vowel.

And finally…

...bootlicking much?

…bootlicking much?

Of course, it is not to say that Provine et al. (2013) is not a good article. I just enjoy pointing out shortcomings in other people’s work because it makes me feel better about myself ;^).

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