Gazing up and to the right of the audience gives a heroic impression

Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa are just a few examples of high-profile moral leaders who have become heroes to their many followers. They also tend to look toward the upper-right of the viewer in portraits that have been widely distributed by supporters of related social causes.

In Western culture, the directions up and right are often associated with positive characteristics, like progression and ascension, raising the possibility that gaze direction preferences are influenced by an underlying directional bias. New research by Jeremy Frimer and Lisa Sinclair provides a comprehensive analysis of this apparent partiality, and reveals that the effect is more closely tied to the followers than the leaders.

Printed in the March, 2016 edition of the journal Psychology and Social Psychology Bulletin, this study included four separate experiments. The first was implemented to verify that people recognized as moral heroes have a tendency to to gaze to the upper-right of the viewer in popular portraits. Data obtained from 158 American subjects via the crowdsourcing site Crowdflower (all measurements were gathered in this manner) identified the top ten choices for people considered to be moral heroes.

The researchers then gathered about 600 images of each selection and had them independently coded to identify gaze direction. Results confirmed that moral leaders look up and to the right of the viewer significantly more often than would be expected by chance, and also more so than a control group of random celebrity portraits.

Experiment two asked 412 participants to choose from between nine images of the same person gazing in different directions. Half of the subjects were instructed to choose the best picture for promoting a social cause (the moral condition), while the other half was to select an image for a job application (the non-moral condition). Pictures featuring the upper-right gaze were chosen significantly more often than would be predicted by chance in the social-moral condition only, signifying that this direction is actually interpreted as being morally superior to others.

The third part of this study (331 subjects) was used to evaluate and eliminate the potential influence of confounding variables. Finally, experiment four gathered data from a whopping 750 Americans to identify pride, warmth and being future-oriented as the key personal characteristics that are communicated through the upper-right gaze and contribute to the impression of being heroic. In total, this research suggests that the proliferation of images with moral leaders looking to the upper-right of the viewer is a result of followers’ cultural and personal interpretations of physical directions.