What The Eyes Reveal About Decision Making

When you play poker, a big part of the game is trying to judge and predict the decisions being made by your opposition players. Proficient players attempt to do this by reading and studying the players face and body language to look for particular signs that give away their hand and their intentions.

The very best players believe they have this skill down to a fine art, but it remains elusive for the majority of us, who are often oblivious to what our peers and colleagues are thinking at any particular moment.

It’s undoubtedly a valuable skill to have though, and has numerous work based applications, whether during employment negotiations or even team meetings.  The ability to judge when a colleague is about to make a good or bad decision can be invaluable.

Looking into the whites of their eyes

A recent study, published in the PLOS Computational Biology journal, suggests the answer may be looking us right in the eye however. It suggests that we can accurately predict the decision someone is about to make by examining the pupil of the decision maker right before they make their decision.

It goes on to reveal that the secret may be in the size of the pupil of each individual, with the eyes of decision makers providing a telltale sign of their intentions.

Participants in the study were asked to look at a group of dots, whilst deciding whether they were moving in a particular direction or not. It may sound a peculiar experiment, but it was designed in a way to mimic the kind of perceptual decisions we tend to make in our regular life.

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that when the participant had a large pupil before the task was attempted, their performance in the task was poor.

Arousal equals a drop in performance

They suggest that this is largely because the pupil size is a direct measure of our arousal levels. In other words, the larger our pupils are, the more aroused we are, and this correlated with a drop in performance in the test.

Of course, the flip side was also far from optimal, with the results showing that a complete lack of arousal, or boredom in other words, was not a recipe for optimal performance either. The ideal pupil size was therefore somewhere in the middle. Not too low to be bored, but not so high that they couldn’t concentrate.

Interestingly, it emerged that some people appeared in an almost permanent state of arousal, and these people would often make consistently bad decisions.

“We are constantly required to make decisions about the world we live in. In this study, we show that how precise and reliable a person is in making a straightforward decision about motion can be predicted by simply measuring their pupil size. This finding suggests that the reliability with which an individual will make an upcoming decision is at least partly determined by pupil-linked ‘arousal’ or alertness, and furthermore, can potentially be deciphered on the fly," the researchers said.

Are there any practical implications?

Of course, you may be wondering what practical use this has?  After all, who amongst us has the skill to detect changes in pupil size within our peers? Well, it turns out that we may be better at it than we think.

Studies suggest that we are actually pretty good at detecting quite subtle changes in body language, and indeed pupil size, in people we converse with, and then process this information on a subconscious level.

It suggests that we don’t need to spend an unusual amount of time gazing into the eyes of our colleagues in order to understand whether their decision making capabilities are up to speed or not, which is probably just as well.

This knowledge might make your next team meeting or performance review a bit more interesting. Let me know how you get on in the comments section below...

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