Don't look at me when I'm talking to you

Revisionism is spilling into all areas, leading to a nation of people who aren't sure about anything any more
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The Independent Online

Common Understanding Reversal (Straying Eyes) Syndrome - or the catchier acronym CURSES - is a phenomenon you will not have encountered by name, the reason being that I only made it up yesterday afternoon. But you are a sufferer. We all are.

Common Understanding Reversal (Straying Eyes) Syndrome - or the catchier acronym CURSES - is a phenomenon you will not have encountered by name, the reason being that I only made it up yesterday afternoon. But you are a sufferer. We all are.

We suffer at the hands, or more particularly the minds, of a vast battalion of psychologists, sociologists, dieticians, scientists and statisticians who seem to devote themselves to overthrowing commonly-held precepts.

The latest example of this is research which shows that children who avert their eyes while adults are talking to them - known in the psychology business as "gaze aversion" - may be processing information more effectively than those who look the adult directly in the eye.

In other words, the parent's or teacher's sharp rejoinder to "look at me when I'm talking to you" is misplaced. We should, it now appears, be telling them the opposite.

Apparently, research at Stirling University shows that the children who look away absorb more facts than those who don't, largely because the act of looking at someone requires the processing of unnecessary information - especially, I imagine, if that someone has a large and improbably hairy wart on the bridge of her nose, like my own primary school teacher Mrs Pogson. Who knows how much better I might have done in my studies, aged six, had I been encouraged to look away from Mrs Pogson, rather than at her? For me, these findings have come 35 years too late.

Still, it is thought that the principles of gaze aversion might apply to adults, too, thereby undermining the widely-held assumption that someone who avoids eye contact is shifty and probably a liar.

This, it occurs to me, might introduce into police station interview rooms a fascinating game of bluff, double-bluff and double-double-bluff.

Police interrogators have already taken stock of research which shows that some liars actually use a direct gaze to project an image of honesty, knowing that a suspect who refuses to look his or her questioner in the eye is generally considered to have something to hide. Now, further confusing the issue, it emerges that not looking the questioner in the eye could well mean that the questions are being taken more, not less seriously.

As for those of us who rarely end up in police interview rooms, touch wood, there are other ramifications. By employing a spot of gaze aversion this evening, for instance, it seems that I will be able to compute more efficiently what my wife is telling me about the complicated arrangements for picking up the children from school tomorrow, while at the same time watching how Jordan's breasts are getting on in the Australian rainforest.

And when she tells me to look her in the eye rather than Jordan in the cleavage, I will be able to claim, citing the Stirling research, that she is giving me too much to process and thus reducing the likelihood of me turning up to collect the right child at the right time.

I do hope that Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, the psychologist behind all this, doesn't mind me treating it lightly. I can see that it's fascinating stuff. But it does appear to be the case that for every guiding light in the way we pursue our lives, there is another light leading us in the opposite direction.

Dieticians do it to us all the time. One says carbohydrates are good for us, another that they are bad. One minute we should eat as much oily fish as we can, the next avoid it altogether. And what about hormone replacement therapy? Encouraged yesterday, it is discouraged today.

Similarly, most of us have grown up being advised that it is unacceptably rude to look away when someone is talking to us, on the basis that it indicates boredom; now we are told that, on the contrary, it means we are being more attentive. What hallowed anthropological absolutes are next for the scrap heap? Will the limp handshake be reinterpreted as a sign of manly vigour?

Certainly it is hard enough being a parent without trying to absorb every latest bit of psychological, scientific or dietary advice. I've spent several years trying to dissuade my daughter from biting her nails, one son from picking his nose and my other son from sucking his thumb. So I don't much want to read new research which shows that committed nail-biters, nose-pickers and thumb-suckers have a higher-than-average chance of growing up to be CEOs of top multinational companies. But I probably will.

There seems no doubt - without casting any on Dr Doherty-Sneddon's findings - that there is more kudos in emphatically reversing an old theory than in parading an entirely new one. In history, it happens all the time and is called revisionism. Some historical revisionists, such as David Irving who questioned the scale of the Holocaust, are absurd and rightly discredited figures. But there are other historians who have successfully discredited history itself.

The trouble is that revisionism is spilling into all areas of our lives, and producing a nation of people who just aren't sure about anything any more. Maybe the safest thing to do is stay in bed, then we don't have to worry about getting out on the wrong side, although new research will doubtless show that what we thought was the wrong side is in fact the right side, and that whatever we do, it's madness to stay in bed.