A sideways look at economics

The Matrix movies popularised the idea that normality and reality may be subjective concepts that cannot be pinned down with any degree of accuracy across time or space. The perception of reality continually evolves based on our individual and collective experiences and sensory rationalisations. Eyes, in particular, hold a prominent role in this process just like sunglasses did in the movie. I must have been about the same age as my son (nine) when I had my own Matrix moment and learnt how our eyes process colours. I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since or looked at eyes quite in the same way.

The idea that something as well defined as the colour red may not be such an objective truth was mind-bendingly fascinating and alarming in equal measure. What or whom do you trust if you can’t even trust what you see? It was very unsettling to question my bearings in life at an age when I had just started to find some.

Around this same time, I joined the local Scout group. During the mid-week gatherings, it was common for the cubs to sit around in circle and for the leaders to read passages from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I would generally be close to dozing off, but one day my ears perked up. In the passage being read, Bagheera, the friendly panther, explained to Mowgli how he was different from the other animals in the jungle. Bagheera pointed to Mowgli’s ability to hold his gaze for longer than any other animal as proof that he was a man not a wolf. That passage left a deep and weird mark. It is also the first memory I have of questioning whether the eyes may help shape reality and normality, not just through vision.

It would take the hormonal jumble of my high school years to really cement the subtle differences and feedback loops between seeing, looking and watching. It was a big ask to expect a teenager, fogged by the incessant visual stimuli of a co-ed classroom in the sweltering Italian early summer heat, to rely solely on his eyes to disentangle lust from love, what was real from a chemical imbalance. But lessons were learnt anyway, some even in that very classroom. Among these, a special mention goes to my philosophy teacher. For a 15-year-old, it was both a valuable and soothing distraction to learn that there were deeper questions to life than whether wearing Bermuda shorts could destroy your social status. (It could!) Moreover, the realisation that all those big questions had an even wider range of answers was nothing short of transformational. For me, a particularly influential early lesson in this philosophy class was the allegory of the cave from Plato. This story is basically a low-tech version of the Matrix plot script, laden with heavy symbolism about how reality is much more about nurturing a critical sense than about what can be immediately seen through the eyes.

However, I also believe that the eyes can reinforce our own critical sense in unique ways and not necessarily through vision. For example, I find eyes provide rare insights about people’s behaviour and preferences. A surprisingly large body of academic research is actually devoted to the importance of eyes in social interactions.

For example, one study shows how women tend to resort to non-verbal clues (aka flirting) more often than men when signalling an interest, possibly because men generally need multiple hints before the penny drops. Another study proposes that the processing of verbal communication and eye contact share some of the same cognitive areas in the brain. More intriguingly still, one research paper argues that directly gazing into a stranger’s eyes may trigger an empathic reaction. This reaction, called the self-other merge, enhances the perception that the stranger is more similar to oneself in terms of face and personality.

This finding seems particularly relevant to the current state of affairs. For a start, face-to-face interactions are still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Professionally, this is especially problematic as it makes locking eyes with a business partner or client much more difficult. In a world of fine margins and easy misinterpretations, creating an empathic spark is often what propels a new business deal over the line and a new venture towards a successful outcome. In my experience both virtual meetings and emails are not only imperfect substitutes for face-to-face meetings, but often actually counterproductive, dampening empathy and optimism.

In the social sphere, however, there may be less reason to worry than perhaps initially feared. For example, I have found myself locking eyes much more often with strangers since the pandemic, particularly whenever both parties are wearing masks. The gaze is generally not very long, but it has made for a pleasant and unexpected experience.

I must mention at this point that part of my fascination with eyes comes also from actually enjoying meeting a stranger’s gaze. I find this a small leap of faith with no strings attached, a simultaneous and reciprocal act of trust where there’s nothing to gain or lose. It is such an easy thing to do in principle and yet so difficult and rare in practice. I have only ever met a handful of people with whom I felt we could get lost in each other’s gaze. Two of them are my kids. I’m afraid the sentiment works the other way around too. I find it very hard to trust anyone who is unwilling to make eye contact with me for any significant amount of time. I would put these people in the same category as those who tend to answer a question with another one and believe in reciprocity only when it is owed to them.

I am also conscious that I may be a bit extreme in these preferences. A piece of research shows that the normal length of a gaze before it turns uncomfortable for one of the parties is about three seconds. I have informally tested this with my kids, and I counted to six and more than nine seconds for each of them. This would put them around 3 standard deviations away from the mean and literally off the chart relatively to the experiment’s sample.

Finally, my interest, and perhaps little obsession with eyes, carries over in the art world. I love optical illusions and think Escher is the Leonardo Da Vinci (the eyes of Mona Lisa anyone?) of the genre in its self-taught ability to marry art with maths. More recently I’ve also came across Abdullah Aydemir a photographer who focuses on taking pictures of subjects with stunningly beautiful eyes. If you are new to either, I hope you will enjoy their work as much as I do. Happy Friday.