By Ray Williams,
February 24, 2021
Many of our relationships begin with that moment when our eyes meet and we realize the other person is looking right at us. Pause for a second and consider the intensity of the situation, the near-magical state of two brains simultaneously processing one another, each aware of being, at that very instant, the center of the other’s mental world. Psychologists have made some surprising discoveries about the way that mutual gaze, or the lack of it, affects us mentally and physically and how we relate to each other. Here’s a digest of the fascinating psychology of eye contact, from tiny babies’ sensitivity to gaze to the hallucination-inducing effects of prolonged eye-staring.
When someone’s talking to you, have you noticed how they seem to keep breaking off eye contact, as if finding it hard to both talk and look you in the eye at the same time? Similarly, when you’re explaining something to someone or telling them a story, do you find yourself looking away from their eyes, so that you can concentrate on what you’re saying? A pair of Japanese researchers say that this happens because eye contact has a “unique effect” on our “cognitive control processes”. Essentially, mutual gaze is so mentally stimulating that it can be tricky to think straight and maintain eye contact at the same time.
Past research has shown that eye contact interferes with other mental tasks such as those involving visual imagination. Arguably this isn’t so surprising because both eye contact and visual imagination are obviously tapping the same mental domain. In their new paper published in Cognition, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura tested whether eye contact also interferes with our ability to generate verbs in a word task, and whether this happens in all cases, or only when the verb generation task is made extra difficult.
Twenty-six participants were asked to look directly at a stranger’s face shown on-screen, while simultaneously performing an auditory verb generation task. Six men’s and women’s faces featured in the study, and were shown either looking straight at the participant or with their gaze averted. The faces were video animated so they appeared naturally, blinking and breathing. Each trial, the participant looked at the face, heard a noun, then their task was to respond out loud with a verb that could be used with the noun in a sentence.
The researchers used a range of nouns that are easier or harder to respond to, based on how strongly associated to the noun any related verbs are (i.e. retrieval demands high or low); and whether one possible response is much more dominant than any others versus there being many equally plausible alternatives (i.e. selection demands high or low).
To take one example, the noun “milk” is easy on both measures, because it’s strongly associated with “drink” and much more so than any other verb.
The key result is that participants were much slower at the verb generation task when making eye contact with the face on-screen, as opposed to when the face’s gaze was averted, but only in the most difficult version of the verb generation task, when retrieval and selection demands were high.
Kajimura and Nomura said this shows that eye contact doesn’t directly interfere with mental processes specifically related to verb generation – if it did, then performance times ought to have been longer for eye contact across easy and difficult versions of the verb task. Instead, they said the results are consistent with the idea that eye contact drains our more general cognitive resources – the kind that we need to draw on when some other task, such as speaking, becomes too difficult to be handled by domain-specific resources. That’s why the more complicated the story you’re telling (or excuse you’re making), the more likely you are to need to break off eye contact.
Looking away when we’re talking is something most of us do instinctively as adults, but this isn’t necessarily the case for children. Past research has shown that young children can benefit from being taught to avert their gaze when they’re thinking.
Summary of Research by the British Psychological Society
Our sensitivity to eye contact begins incredibly early. Infants of just two days of age prefer looking at faces that gaze back at them. Similarly, recordings of the brain activity of four-month-olds show that they process gazing faces more deeply than faces that are looking away; and at 7-months, infants’ brains process eye contact differently from averted gaze even when the eyes are shown for just 50ms – far too quick for any kind of conscious awareness.
Most children recognize the social significance of eye contact, but they seem to take it too far. At the age of three and four, for instance, they often believe that so long as they cover their eyes – thus preventing eye contact – that they will be completely hidden from view. In fact, children will often claim to be hidden even if they simply avert their gaze while another person looks at them.
Children with autism often show a noticeable lack of eye contact and part of the reason is their difficulty understanding the social significance of another person’s gaze, and that they find it difficult to infer other people’s mental state from their eyes.
As adults, locking eyes with another person immediately triggers in us a state of increased self-consciousness. Researchers showed this by asking participants to rate their own emotional reactions to various positive and negative images, some of which were preceded by a face staring straight at them, others by a face with gaze averted. Participants had more insight into their own emotional reactions (which were measured objectively through the galvanic skin response) after they’d made eye contact with a face. “Our results support the view that human adults’ bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another’s gaze,” the researchers said.
In fact, eye contact is such an intense experience it even seems to consume extra brain power, making it difficult to perform other challenging mental tasks at the same time. This year a pair of Japanese researchers tested participants on a verb generation task while at the same time they looked at a realistic on-screen face that was either making eye contact with them or had its gaze averted. Making eye contact impaired the participants’ performance on the hardest version of the verb generation task, presumably because it consumed spare brain power that might otherwise have been available to support performance on the verbal task.
Unlike adults, who mostly know instinctively to break eye contact to help concentrate on what they’re saying, children will tend to maintain gaze even when asked a difficult question. Developmental psychologists have shown that children can benefit from being trained to avert their gaze to help them think things through more clearly.
Whether or not other people make eye contact with us changes the way that we think about them and their feelings. For example, we are more likely to remember faces with which we’ve experienced mutual gaze, and we consider displays of anger and joy to be more intense when shown by a person making eye contact. In fact, when a person or human-like entity (such as a human face morphed with a doll) makes eye contact with us, we assume that he/she/it has a more sophisticated mind and a greater ability to act in the world, such as to show self-control and act morally, and a greater desire for social contact.
Indeed, such is the importance of eye contact to socializing that we tend to form rather low opinions of people who persistently avoid our gaze, assuming that they are less sincere and, at least if they’re female, less conscientious. Conversely, we’re more likely to believe statements made by a person who looks us in the eye. Yet maintaining eye contact with too much intensity is seen as a feature of psychopaths.
To try to identity the optimum length of unbroken eye contact to make, psychologists recruited participants at London’s Science Museum and asked them to rate how comfortable they found different lengths of eye contact made by faces shown in video clips, ranging from between 100ms (a tenth of a second) to 10,300ms (just over ten seconds). On average, the participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted just over three seconds.
When it comes to deciding whether we trust another person, it turns out that it’s not only a question of how much eye contact they make, but also what we see in their eyes. Remarkably, it seems that we pay attention at a subconscious level to the behaviour of their pupils, and if they dilate – a sign of attraction and emotional arousal – we judge them to be more trustworthy, whereas if they constrict – a sign of fear or feeling threatened – then we judge them less trustworthy. Also, when we trust a partner with dilating pupils, our own pupils tend to mimic theirs and show similar dilation.
We think poorly of conversation partners who consistently avoid eye contact, but it is our feelings of belonging that are hurt when a stranger looks our way and deliberately avoids meeting our eyes – an experience captured by the German expression “wie Luft behandeln”, which means to be looked at as though air. Psychologists demonstrated this in a field study on their university campus, in which they subjected passersby to the “wie Luft behandeln” experience after which they reported feeling disconnected from others.
Thankfully we seem to have an inbuilt defense mechanism to avoid these feelings of disconnection when we’re already feeling rejected. Psychologists showed us this by prompting some participants to feel ostracized in a game of online ball passing, and then asking them to judge whether a series of faces were looking right at them or not. Compared with control participants, those feeling ostracized were more likely to believe that other faces were making eye contact with them, even if in truth their eyes were slightly averted.
And finally, it seems extreme eye contact can lead to some very strange psychological effects. If you and a partner look into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes while sitting in a dimly lit room, you are likely to experience odd sensations that resemble mild “dissociation” – a psychological term for when people lose their normal connection with reality. When the Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo tested these effects for a paper published in 2015, he found that participants experienced odd feelings of time slowing down, sounds seeming quiet or loud, and 90 per cent said they’d seen some deformed facial features, 75 per cent said they’d seen a monster, 50 per cent said they saw aspects of their own face in their partner’s face, and 15 per cent said they’d seen a relative’s face.
Eye Contact with an Audience
New research is showing that it might not be as important to lock eyes with our audience as we were initially taught. New research coming out of Edith Cowan University which found that “people don’t need to mindfully look at the eyes of their audience to be perceived as making eye contact during face-to-face conversation.”
The research was headed up by Dr. Shane Rogers, from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities. In the study, researchers tracked the eye movements of 46 participants during 4-minute conversations using Tobii eye tracking glasses.
The participants were divided into 2 groups. The first group was instructed to stare primarily into the eyes of the person with whom they were conversing. And the second group was instructed to stare primarily at the mouth of the person with whom they were conversing.
Following the conversations, participants had to rate their interactions. This involved questions about how much they enjoyed the conversation as well as how much they thought the speaker had looked into their eyes.
Interestingly, researchers found no significant difference between the two groups’ results. Both groups rated the perceived eye contact and enjoyment of conversation similarly. Dr. Rogers said this demonstrates that we have a limited capacity to determine a speaker’s exact gaze and we “perceive direct gaze towards [the] face as eye contact.”
What Does This Mean?
So what does this new research mean for those of us who give presentations in front of audiences? First, eye contact is still important. In Western culture, eye contact still has an important role to play in communication. We still view direct eye contact as a sign of credibility and dominance. It also helps us to initiate conversation and end it. Lack of eye contact can also make us appear submissive or dishonest.
But as the ECU research above showed, it means you can take some pressure off of yourself when it comes to eye contact. As a speaker, you’ve got a lot of things to worry about, but accomplishing a laser gaze into the eyeballs of everyone in the audience doesn’t have to be one of them. Gaze in the general direction of the eyes or the mouth, and you’ll be fine. And so will your audience. But do note that research has shown that gazing at the hairline, or forehead as some speakers were taught, isn’t the best strategy. Studies have shown that it’s “easier to notice when someone’s gaze is fixated on your hairline than when it’s fixated on your mouth.”
Dr. Rogers summed up his new findings perfectly when he said, “So don’t get hung up on seeking out the eyes of your audience, just look generally at their face, and let the eye contact illusion experienced by your partner do the work for you.”
What About Virtual Eye Contact?
A new study has found that virtual eye contact has the same impact on our nervous system that in person eye contact does. The paper comes from Tampere University in Finland, where researchers wanted to know whether we had to be physically with each other to get the benefit of interaction.
To sort out how we react to seeing someone virtually, the researchers used measurements of skin conductance which tracks activation of the autonomic nervous system. They also measured facial muscles to see how the participants’ felt about the interaction. Study participants looked at another person’s direct and averted gaze in three situations: in-person interaction, a video call and just watching a video.
People’s facial muscles showed they felt positive in all three situations, but the autonomic nervous system was not stimulated by simply watching a video. As expected, in person eye contact turned up the vagus nerve. But the great news was that video calls did too.
Jonne Hietanen, first author of the study, explained in a press release, “Our results imply that the autonomic arousal response to eye contact requires the perception of being seen by another. Another person’s physical presence is not required for this effect.” The study authors were quick to point out that this may not work well in applications like Skype or Zoom where the position of the camera creates an averted gaze.
Virtual eye contact can help us feel connected during social distancing, and that’s great news. We all need to feel seen by each other.
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