Eye Movements May Indicate Impatience And Impulsivity
Christopher Philip

In a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers Shadmehr Choi and Vaswani Shadmehr working out of Johns Hopkins found evidence that people who are more impulsive tend to move their eyes with greater speed. “It seems that people who make quick movements, at least eye movements, tend to be less willing to wait,” says Dr. Reza Shadmehr. The researchers wanted to evaluate decision-making as it may help illuminate how neurological disorders such as schizophrenia or brain injuries affect the brain.

The researchers primary aim was to figure out why some people are willing to wait, while others are not. “When I go to the pharmacy and see a long line, how do I decide how long I’m willing to stand there?” said Dr. Shadmehr “Are those who walk away and never enter the line also the ones who tend to talk fast and walk fast, perhaps because of the way they value time in relation to rewards?”

Dr. Shadmehr addressed the question by examining simple eye movements called “saccades.” Saccades are motions our eyes make as we shift our focus from one thing to another. “They are probably the fastest movements of the body,” says Shadmehr. “They occur in just milliseconds.” Human saccades are fastest when we are teenagers and slow down as we age, he adds. The researchers used saccades as replacements for bodily movements. Eyes make great predictors of where the body wants to be and indicates where the mind is thinking. This makes eyes into indicator cues because they tell others where a person intends to go.

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In the current study, the team first asked subjects to look at a screen and watch dots as they moved from one side of the screen, then to the other, and then back again. The researchers found that there was much variation between individuals but very little within individuals, even when the observations happened on different days and different times. This suggests that there is an element of personality involved with respect to saccade speed. “Some people simply make fast saccades,” he says.

The subjects were then told to watch the screen once more. In this test, they were given a visual command to look right or left, but when they responded incorrectly, a buzzer sounded. After a period of time the subjects were forewarned that if they followed the command right away, they would be wrong 25 percent of the time. After an undermined amount of time, the first command was replaced with a second command to look in the opposite direction.

Next, the subjects were measured on how long they were willing to wait between commands. This time however, the researchers increased or decreased the length of time to determine exactly how patient they were. If a person was not very patient, the researchers would decrease the wait time, and if they were patient enough to wait the full amount, that time was increased. The relative length of time a subject was willing to wait, gave the researchers an idea as to how patient or impulsive the subjects were.

The results of this practical test were then compared to the subjects scores on their assessed level of patience recorded previously. The researchers found a strong correlation. “It seems that people who make quick movements, at least eye movements, tend to be less willing to wait,” says Dr. Shadmehr. “Our hypothesis is that there may be a fundamental link between the way the nervous system evaluates time and reward in controlling movements and in making decisions. After all, the decision to move is motivated by a desire to improve one’s situation, which is a strong motivating factor in more complex decision-making, too.”

By making allocations for relative age, we can use this knowledge to make strong predications about a person’s impulsivity in a simple and applicable manner. For quite some time, we have assumed that shifty eyes means dishonesty, and it has given the body cue negative connotations, however, this new research suggests something else might be tipping us off subconsciously. Perhaps at some level we understand that the body language is telling us about how little patience a person carries.

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J. E. S. Choi, P. A. Vaswani, R. Shadmehr. Vigor of Movements and the Cost of Time in Decision Making. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (4): 1212.

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