Asked by: George Brignal, Cambridge
Today, eye-rolling is frequently used as signal of covert rebellion: think of the teenager who submits to a parental reprimand while looking skyward for the benefit of her friends. But it wasn’t always so – an analysis of mentions of eye-rolling in literature shows that the modern meaning only emerged in recent decades. In Shakespeare, for example, eye-rolling is associated with lust. Unfortunately, we don’t know much more than that – psychologists have spent much time studying smiles, frowns and sneers, but they’ve mostly neglected the eye roll. One exception: a study published in 2015 found that women frequently perform eye rolls when exposed to sexist jokes.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.