Sixty-two student participants, half of them female, rated the dominance and/or attractiveness of the photographed faces of forty men and forty women. All models were Caucasian, and all of them were holding a neutral expression. Men with brown eyes were rated consistently as more dominant than blue-eyed men. No such effect of eye-colour was found for the photos of women. Eye colour also bore no association to the attractiveness ratings.
Next the researchers used Photoshop to give the brown-eyed men blue eyes and the blue-eyed men brown eyes. The photos were then rated by a new batch of participants. The intriguing finding here was that the dominance ratings were left largely unaffected by the eye colour manipulation. The men who really had brown eyes, but thanks to Photoshop appeared with blue eyes, still tended to be rated as more dominant.
This suggests there's some other aspect of facial appearance that tends to co-occur with brown eyes, which is responsible for the perception of dominance. An analysis of the men's facial configurations showed that the brown-eyed men tended to have broader, bigger chins, bigger noses, eyes closer together, and larger eye-brows than blue-eyed men, so it's possible some or all of these facial features are responsible for the perception of dominance. Certainly previous research has shown that men with wider faces are perceived as more aggressive.
Kleisner's team can't say at this point why eye colour co-occurs with certain facial features and with the appearance of being more dominant or submissive. However, one suggestion they make is that boys with blue eyes come to be seen as less dominant by a process of social feedback. 'It is possible that subjects with blue eyes are treated as a small child for a longer period than brown-eyed children,' the researchers said. 'Such early social experience may have been literally "inscribed" into their faces, preserved until adulthood, and finally bring on the perception of higher submissiveness.'
Kleisner, K., Kočnar, T., Rubešová, A., & Flegr, J. (2010). Eye color predicts but does not directly influence perceived dominance in men. Personality and Individual Differences, 49 (1), 59-64 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.03.011
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