The Eyes Really Do Have It: Attribution of Character in the Eyes of Killers

  • Matthew J. SharpsEmail author
  • Megan R. Herrera


“The eyes are the window of the soul” is a staple cliché in many cultures, but is there any truth to this concept, of any potential importance in the forensic realm? The present study addressed this question in two experiments. It was shown that observation of the eyes and ocular regions of normal control individuals, and of serial killers, enabled average respondents to distinguish these individuals clearly in terms of trustworthiness, likability, and general “goodness.” In both experiments, and based on nothing but this observation, serial killers were consistently rated lower on all three indices. No sex or individual differences were observed in this pattern of results. These findings are consistent with current evolutionary and cognitive theory, and may highlight the importance of the perception of defendants by witnesses and jurors in criminal proceedings.


Interpretation of eyes Serial killers Attribution of character Evolution and forensic psychology 



The authors wish to thank Richard Herrera for his expertise and assistance in generating the digital stimuli employed in this study.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This article is based entirely on original work conducted by the authors. Full ethical approval per University and OHARP regulations was obtained from the appropriate CSU Institutional Review Board in advance, and the study was IRB-designated “minimal risk.”

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Full informed consent, in writing, was received from all respondents and the completed informed consent forms are stored separately from the data under locked conditions, as per American Psychological Association regulations.


  1. Bradley MM (2000) Emotion and motivation. In: Cacciopo JT, Tassinary LG, Berntson GG (eds) Handbook of psychophysiology, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 602–642Google Scholar
  2. Braine C (1970) New finds on the Swartkraans australopithecine site. Nature 225:112–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brues AM (1977) People and races. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Butler AB, Hodos W (1996) Comparative vertebrate neuroanatomy. Wiley-Liss, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. Carlson EB, Putnam FW (1993) An update on the dissociative experiences scale. Dissociation 6:16–27Google Scholar
  6. Darwin C (1872) Expression of the emotions in man and animals. Murray, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ekman P, Friesen WV (1986) A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motiv Emot 10:159–168CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Frazier JG (1890) The golden bough. Avenal, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. Hickey EW (1997) Serial murderers and their victims. Wadsworth, Belmont, CAGoogle Scholar
  10. Jolly A (1972) The evolution of primate behavior. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Keats J (1819) La belle dame sans merci. In: Quiller-Couch A (ed) (1940), The Oxford book of English verse. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Lambroso C (1876, reprinted 2006) Criminal man. Duke University Press, Durham, NCGoogle Scholar
  13. Lewis-Williams D, Pearce D (2005) Inside the Neolithic mind. Thames and Hudson, LondonGoogle Scholar
  14. Mayor A (2000) The first fossil hunters. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJGoogle Scholar
  15. Orians GH (1998) Human behavioral ecology: 140 years without Darwin is too long. Bull Ecol Soc Am 79:15–28Google Scholar
  16. Orians GH, Heerwagen JH (1992) Evolved responses to landscapes. In: Barkow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (eds) The adapted mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Prothero DR (2006) After the dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, INCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Sharps MJ (2012) Eyewitness to the paranormal: the experimental psychology of the “unexplained.”. Skeptical Inquirer 36:39–43Google Scholar
  19. Sharps, M.J., & Herrera, M. (2016) The eyes really do have it: attribution of violent potential from facial observation. Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, Austin, TXGoogle Scholar
  20. Sharps MJ, Liao SW, Herrera MR (2016) Dissociation and paranormal beliefs: toward a taxonomy of belief in the unreal. Skept Inq 40:40–44Google Scholar
  21. Sharps MJ, Villegas AB, Nunes MA, Barber TL (2002) Memory for animal tracks: a possible cognitive artifact of human evolution. J Psychol 136:469–492CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Turner A (1997) The big cats and their fossil relatives. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Society for Police and Criminal Psychology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCalifornia State UniversityFresnoUSA

Personalised recommendations