Cereal packaging. Eyes. Evolution. And what supermarket aisles tell us about the white of the eye.
Walking down supermarket aisles to look for breakfast cereals is an act of grocery shopping. It is also a lesson in evolution about the white of the eye.
Companies have honed the fine art of cereal box packaging. Just look at the video above from Cornell professor Brain Wansink. Be it cereals for adults or children, the celebrities and cartoon characters are all making eye contact with us.
The cereal boxes are also placed at heights to make that eye contact. Cereals touting fiber and whole grains are placed at adult height, while the more colorful, sugary cereals are placed at kids’ height (or around the knee level of adults).
Why is making eye contact so important? The answer lies in both our cultural and biological evolution.
First, cultural evolution. From hunting as a group to kill much larger prey, to building cities together, to just making friends, humans needed to cooperate and communicate.
Language was an important form of communication, but so was non-verbal communication. And in non-verbal communication, the eyes were arguably the most important because…
“The amount and type of eye gaze imparts a great deal of information. Pupil dilation, blink rates, direction of gaze, widening of the eyes all send very clear messages.” (Source: Psychology Today)
As a result, biologically, our eyes evolved to make it easier for us to look at one another’s eyes. The size of the white of the eye (known as the sclera)…
“…increased and the tan or dark brown pigment found in the sclera of other primates was eliminated. Because visual cues and gaze detection are so important to human behavior, it follows that the unique morphology of the human eye conferred fitness upon those individuals.” (Source: Professor Joanna Bickham)
These gave humans eyes that are “[o]f all primates… the most conspicuous; our eyes see, but they are also meant to be seen”.
The result of this cultural and biological evolution is that we now deem someone making eye contact with us as more trustworthy. Doctors who make more frequent eye contact, for example, are viewed as more “likable and empathetic”.
Companies have learnt this lesson and have applied it to their advertisements and packaging. They want us to like and trust their products. Just take a look at the cereal boxes again in the video: Both the cartoon characters and celebrities have clear white of the eye (instead of symbolic dot like this :o)!
Walking down the supermarket aisles is thus a lesson in cultural and biological evolution. It is also a lesson in how eyes affected language. Now we can see — pun intended — where phrases like “the eyes are the windows to the soul”, “see eye to eye”, and “only have eyes for you” came from.
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