A Simple Gaze Inspires Complex Behaviors
Even if we don’t appreciate meaningful glances from just anybody, we do look favorably upon those who look directly at us. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen asked a group of people to look at two pictures of faces that were almost identical—the only difference was that one face had eyes looking away and the other’s eyes looked into the camera, mimicking eye contact. Whether the subjects smiled or looked disgusted didn’t make much difference; instead, men and women found the faces making eye contact most attractive and likable. According to the journal Nature, the brain’s reward center is activated when one makes eye contact with a good-looking person. Not only do we like looking at attractive people, but it makes us feel even better when they look our way.
Because eye contact is linked directly to our emotions, it has an effect on our behavior, too, as researchers at Tufts University proved. Study participants encountered a dime left in a phone booth and were approached by a random person claiming it as his or her own. When that person made eye contact with the participants, they were more likely to give back the dime. Having someone look directly at them made them more honest, probably because their inner thoughts—namely, “This dime isn’t mine”—seemed exposed.
Direct gazes also prompt increased participation from people in groups because it makes them feel more included. Dr. Roel Vertegaal, an expert on eye communication between humans, showed that the amount of eye contact a person received during a group conversation was proportional to how much he or she participated. Eye contact also forces us to pay attention more: a 2005 joint study by the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Stirling found that viewers remembered what a speaker said better if he looked directly into the camera at least 30 percent of the time.
This improved attention to detail shifts the other way if someone’s expected to answer a question while making eye contact with someone else, as evidenced by a University of Stirling study. Kids answered questions correctly only 50 percent of the time if they had to look at someone while doing it; their scores improved significantly when they were allowed to avert their gazes. Eye contact requires so much mental work that it becomes difficult to think of much else in the process. It’s easy when our eyes are focusing on someone we trust and love; we can concentrate solely on the adoration, instead of on keeping up a conversation. But most of us can’t even look into an acquaintance’s eyes and keep a straight face, let alone attempt complex problem solving.
Use Eye Contact with Discretion
Eye contact can help us feel incredibly bonded or incredibly creeped out, depending on the person in view. It can make people more honest or make them appear more attractive. It has the power to enhance memory or cause us to forget everything else but the irises in front of us. Think of how many people we lock eyes with on a daily basis, be it at the grocery store or during a conversation with a coworker. It’s a wonder we can get anything done!
Luckily, there’s a social difference between strangers and loved ones when it comes to eye contact time limits. A certain amount is necessary for social functioning (how weird is it when the person you’re talking to refuses to look you in the eyes?), but anything more than that gets far too close for comfort. Though we do it all the time, eye contact is clearly one of the most intimate behaviors we engage in. We may look into people’s eyes throughout the day, but we reserve the prolonged kind of gazing for those we keep closest to our hearts.