The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


What ails you that you keep gazing on the ground? --Dante Alighieri (PurgatorioCanto XIX)
Sign1. Rotating the eyeballs in their sockets to a downward position. 2. Bowing or tilting the head forward so that the eyes face the ground or floor.

Usage: Gaze-down may convey a defeated attitude. It may also reflect guilt, shame, or submissiveness, as when distorting the truth or telling a lie (see DECEPTION). Gazing down while--or shortly after--stating "I am innocent," e.g., shows that a speaker may not believe his or her own remarks. True statements are normally given with a confident, face-to-faceor level gaze, which may be held longer than three seconds.

Anatomy. The six muscles that cooperate to move each eyeball are common to all vertebrates. Direct eye contact (or primary gaze, i.e., looking straight ahead) involves all six muscles (Nolan 1996:60). Gaze-down occurs as the inferior rectus muscle, innervated by the oculomotor nerve (cranial III), contracts as the prime mover.

Courtship. The downward gaze is a standard cue used when courting couples speak. 

E-Commentary: David, do you have any specific research information on how men tend to lower their eyes when speaking to women--which leads the women to believe men are looking at their chest? I would be curious to learn the reason this type of behavior occurs as I do not believe it is always deliberate on the part of men. --Jane (1/23/02 8:36:40 AM Pacific Standard Time)

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Look down (e.g., "Looking down at floor") is included in two checklists of universal human cues (Grant 1969:526, Brannigan and Humphries 1972). 2.Submissive children glance down (McGrew 1972). 3. In primates an unwavering gaze shows dominance and threat (Blurton Jones 1967, Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975), while gaze avoidanceis a submissive cue (Altmann 1967). 4. Bowing the head forward is a component of the protective STARTLE REFLEX.

E-Commentary: "Hi, my name is Danielle and I am attending Northern Illinois University. I am currently researching the body language of President Bill Clinton, specifically surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Any help, advice or guidance you could offer me would be greatly appreciated." (3/23/00 2:20:24 PM Pacific Standard Time)

U.S. politics. In a televised statement, while maintaining there was "no truth" to allegations about a sexual relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, President William Jefferson Clinton swallowed (see ADAM'S-APPLE-JUMP), protruded his tongue (see TONGUE-SHOW), and gazed down (McLaughlin Group, January 22, 1998). On January 26, 1998, after pointing his finger aggressively at the American people and stating, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," President Clinton gazed down,clenched his lips (see TENSE-MOUTH), swallowed, and tongue-showed as he left the podium. On September 9, 1998, in Orlando, Florida, President Clinton shrugged his shoulders(see SHOULDER-SHRUG) and gazed down during a nationally televised public apology as he said, "I've done my best to be your friend" (Washington Post, September 10, 1998). (N.B.: According to Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, "There is no substitute for looking a witness in the eye" [Associated Press, February 6, 1998].)

Neuro-notes. Feelings of guilt, shame, and submissiveness pass from the forebrain's emotional limbic system and subcortical motor centers (basal ganglia), to the midbrain's oculomotor (cranial III) and other cranial nerves. Acting in concert, our eye muscles pull together in downward or sideward eye movements, depending on the mood. Submissive feelings move our eyes downward through protective paleocircuits established in lower (i.e., subcortical) vision centers of the midbrain. (Voluntary gaze-down involves higher brain centers, the prefrontal eye fields.) Flexing the head forward is controlled by the nucleus precommisuralis (separate from the prestitial nucleus, which is in charge of raising the head, e.g., in the arrogant head-tilt-back posture).

Antonym: STARE. See also BOW.