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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Perceiving the Power of the Peeper

November 11, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ancient thinkers believed looks could kill--or bewitch.

The Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch wrote that a lover's eye emits a fine substance that can wend its way into another's heart. Ancient Roman scholar Pliny the Elder--for centuries regarded as a scientific authority--proclaimed that certain tribes (along with wolves, hyenas and goats) possessed the powers of the evil eye.

Even today, the steely stare holds powers we don't entirely understand. In numerous studies, more than 90% of college students have reported that they can "feel the stare" of a person gazing at them from an unseen vantage point. They also believe others can feel the forces of their peeper power, especially if their optic orbs are trained on the nape of their target's neck (apparently the G-spot of stare sensitivity).

"The belief that you can feel a stare is omnipresent," says Gerald A. Winer, a psychology professor at Ohio State University and co-author of recent studies on beliefs about stares and eye emanations.

"My wife thinks that if I walk into the room while she is sleeping and I stare at her it will wake her up. A lawyer I know says it is absolutely true that he can feel people staring at him. And these college kids learned [how the eye really works] but they misconstrue it. We consider it a superstition or misconstrued scientific theory . . . but more mysterious because there is no reason to believe that there are [eye] emissions."

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To prove that people can't feel a stare, Winer and fellow researchers had a person sit behind a study subject and, intermittently, gaze at their neck while simultaneously concentrating on them. The subjects perceived they were being stared at 50% of the time, the same rate as chance occurrence. In other words, they were wrong just as often as they were right.

The belief increases as we get older, which seems strange because logical thinking should increase with age and cognitive development. But Winer found that the younger children are, the less likely they are to believe they can feel a stare. Roughly 68% of first-graders said they could feel stares compared to 80% of fifth-graders and 93% of college students.

In a separate study, Winer and researchers found that most younger children believe something projects out from the eyes when we see--but so do at least half of college students, who have learned that seeing requires light rays to go into the eye and send messages to the brain.

"A substantial number of college students and elementary schoolchildren said something like, 'If nothing went out of my eye, I would not be able to see."

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How do such illogical beliefs take root? In fact, much of adult thought is irrational, according to studies, and belief in stare power ranks right up there with belief in astrology (by 58% of the population), visitors from another planet (47%) and the ability to influence the outcome of a baseball game by doing a little dance.

It may be our experience with car headlights and flashlights, suggests Winer, that gives us the idea that we see by projecting something from the eye rather than passively allowing light to enter. (The senses of smell and hearing are much less dependent on aiming the nose or ears in a particular direction.)

Experience and intuition, which is based on a feeling (even if it's wrong), may be more powerful when pitted against rational thought. And the feeling that a stare is some energy force most likely has its genesis in "partial reinforcement effect," says developmental psychologist Jane E. Cottrell. We remember the times we think someone is staring at us and whip around to discover someone actually is, but forget all the times we have that feeling falsely.

"As you get older, you have an accumulation of these experiences, which explains why the belief increases with age," Cottrell says. "Once it is partially reinforced, it is very hard to unlearn."

What's more, our brain has evolved to find patterns, to record the hits and not the misses--a notoriously bad filtering system, says Michael Shermer, author of a forthcoming book titled "Why People Believe Weird Things."

"You remember the hits because it is more emotional than when there are none," Shermer says. "It's the same principle that psychics and fortunetellers work on: They throw out a lot of guesses and people remember the hits, not the things they missed."

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