“It begins with eye contact or a stare and, especially in females, often involves eye-rolling and tossing back the head,” wrote the authors of the 2012 paper, referring to the earlier research. “The look was reported in their study to be only used in same-gender interactions, and conveys contempt. The girls in our study similarly reported ‘daggers’ as being something that was directed only at other girls but, unlike the Californian girls, there was a belief that boys do not use it at all.”
Regardless of who the target is, eye-rolling isn’t usually involuntary like some of the other expressions that flicker across our faces. But that doesn’t mean humans are always rolling their eyes for show, either. In one study, researchers asked women to sit at computer terminal, put on headphones, and listen to a series of jokes—some making fun of lawyers or other professionals, others disparaging to women. The women were asked to record their responses to the jokes on the computers as they listened. What the participants didn’t know was that they were also being videotaped, so that researchers could map their facial expressions as they reacted.
“We coded a number of facial expressions,” LaFrance, the Yale psychologist, told me, “and [in response to the sexist jokes], we found eye-rolling was not infrequent. Even though they were sitting there alone, when you see it, it really looks deliberate—whereas lots of other facial expressions are really automatic.”
That may not always be the case, however. “There’s also some evidence in the medical literature that it’s a tic, and it’s actually been found in Tourette’s syndrome and some other syndromes that show some involuntary muscle movement,” LaFrance said.
Culturally speaking, though, eye-rolling is clearly one of the emotive underpinnings to contempt. In fact, the psychologist John Gottman describes eye-rolling as one of the main features among what he describes as the “four horsemen” of relationship discord. Eye-rolling is an indicator of contempt, Gottman says, and contempt is a major predictor of divorce. (The other “four horsemen,” along with contempt, include stonewalling, defensiveness, and criticism.) “And it’s something that women are more likely to do rather than something more aggressive, even yelling,” LaFrance told me.
The telltale sign for an eye-roll, if it’s not clear you’ve encountered one, is the little smirk that often comes at the end. “The way we measure that is that it’s asymmetrical,” LaFrance said. “It’s much more likely to occur on one side of the mouth.” That same little half-smile is how LaFrance and her colleagues became convinced that Pat Christie, the wife of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was rolling her eyes at a recent Donald Trump campaign event, after Trump said, “The only thing [Hillary Clinton’s] got going is the woman’s card. And the beautiful thing is women don’t like her.”