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Staring contests are automatic -- especially if you're bossy

By Randy Dotinga

Sometimes you can win a battle without lifting a finger. Just think about the time you got into a staredown over that last open parking space in the Costco lot. Somebody blinked, right? Now, a new study suggests that we may engage in staring contests without even thinking about it, especially if we're people who like to run things.

"The initiation of the staredown is reflexive for dominant people," says study lead author David Terburg, a psychology researcher at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. The staredown, it seems, is an automatic part of a controlling person's human-relations toolkit. The bossier you are, the more likely you'll turn to an encounter into a confrontation without even knowing it. (We bet Lucy used this a lot against Charlie Brown when she wasn't pulling the football away.)

The researchers, who report their findings in the journal Psychological Science, came to their conclusions after recruiting 40 young volunteers (half men, half women) to look at 90 images of people's faces. Each image showed a happy, angry or neutral-looking person. The images vanished, then the participants looked at the areas where the faces had been before looking away. (Researchers thought this was the best way to detect staredown-type behavior.)

The participants with the most controlling personalities spent more time gazing at where the angry faces had been. This suggests that "dominant people reflexively maintain eye contact when confronted with social aggression, which ensures the right circumstances for winning a possible staredown," Terburg says. In other words, they automatically get into staring contests when someone looks mad.

Why do we bother getting into staring contests in the first place? Give the credit -- or the blame -- to our heritage in the animal kingdom. "From an evolutionary point of view, eyes mean danger. In order to see its prey, the predator always needs to expose its eyes," Terburg says. "When someone breaks such eye contact, it makes one more vulnerable. Therefore, gaze-aversion is a sign of submission, essentially saying, 'Do with me whatever you feel like doing; I won't retaliate.'"

Staring until someone blinks can also serve as a way to avoid getting physical. Consider how that staredown in the Costco parking lot didn't end in bloodshed, even though you thought you could hear the soundtrack from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in the background. Nobody had to go to the hospital with a broken nose instead of picking up a 36-pack of toilet paper and a 2-quart jar of mayo.

"It saves wear and tear on the body," says Charles S. Carver, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. "If you can intimidate someone else by staring, you don't have to actually fight him."

Carver declined to discuss whether the research might provide insight into how to make sure you're the one who doesn't blink. "I am not inclined to go there," he says. "I think people already know more than they need to know about using staredowns to their own personal advantage."

Oh, well. Maybe the famously bossy Donald Trump could give us some tips.

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