Can’t you see I’m cereals about you?

Cereal packaging. Eyes. Evolution. And what supermarket aisles tell us about the white of the eye.
cereals can tell us about the white of the eye

1-Minute NomNom

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.

The white of the eye evolved so that we can see how much we trust or like someone - Romantic couple at the bar staring at each other's eyes

Can’t you see I’m cereals about you?

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)

the white of the eye makes it clearer what we are communicating non verbally

Just by looking at the eyes, we can tell that she is smiling

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)


We developed the white of the eye, losing the dark pigment found in the sclera of other primates

Other primates have dark pigments in their sclera, while humans developed the white of the eye

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”.

eye contact and variations of it are used in advertising

How do you feel when someone avoids eye contact with you?

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.

NomNomenon - white of the eye - looking at reader

Look into the white of my eyes. See how trustworthy I am?


Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 6.02.39 pm

Like this? Keep your eyes on me by liking me to discover more. All you need is a minute a day to explore the world’s marvels through the phenomenon of food!


photos: in order – depositphotos/xeniamariestockasso ; keeweeboy; xeniamariecokacoka

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