The Science of Eye Contact



Hi! Welcome to this week’s training. I’m Sherri Wilson, an educator, strategist, and introverted entrepreneur that empowers other introverted entrepreneurs the art of persuasion and influence so you can communicate your message clearly and confidently.

This week we’re going to talk about eye contact. Eye contact is one of those really weird things. It’s awkward to begin with. How much is too much? How much is too little. If it’s too much, people find you too intense. Too little and you’re shifty. You can literally go from comfortable to creepy in seconds!

One U.K. organization, Right to Remain, has claimed that refugee applicants have been refused because they didn’t make eye contact during interviews. Why? Because the brain naturally assumes a person is lying.  The reality is that people often give too more eye contact when lying so you think they’re not lying!

On top of just the plain awkwardness of the entire thing, people have varying levels of comfortable eye contact. Culture, psychopathy, PTSD, shyness, social anxiety, autism, and another host of things can really complicate the matter. 

Eye contact is an intimate thing and is a powerful source of social and emotional information. The Bible says that the eyes are the window into the soul. There’s much truth in that. For some, intimacy is a very uncomfortable thing, especially with strangers. I use a lot of eye contact but sitting and staring into someone’s eyes is too much! I can last about 15 seconds. Part of it is my personality and I’m guarded. 

In spite of how awkward eye contact can be, it’s one of the most important forms of nonverbal communication. Looking someone in the eyes during conversation is KEY to connecting socially, professionally, and romantically both on a conscious and subconscious level. 

Research also suggests eye contact improves learning. James P. Otteson conducted a study in 1980 of young students and their teachers. They found that students whose teachers made eye contact with them during lectures were able to recall verbal material better after class. 

In another review of the effects of eye contact on our behavior and thinking skills, researchers discovered that a direct gaze makes the other person feel that what you’re telling them is important for him or her personally. Eye contact also boost memory and improve social interactions if it’s wanted

On the other side of that is eye contact can heighten perceived aggression if too much is used when confronting or challenging someone. I found this interesting because when I’ve had to confront others, I often look away and always thought it was weakness. Now I realize it’s instinct. 

A number of emotional states can make too much eye contact uncomfortable for others such as shyness, embarrassment, or guilt. It’s important to watch for nonverbal cues such as the other person returning your gaze, lighting up, talking more, and relaxing. If you notice a person shying away, acting nervous, looking annoyed, or having trouble concentrating, you need to lessen the amount of eye contact. Most are comfortable with 2/3 of the convo including eye contact and actually like you better. Make sure that in professional situations and with new contacts that you keep your gaze in the eye/nose area. Mouth and down is intrusive and reserved for intimate couples.   

Research in Japan suggests that eye contact uses the same mental resources used for complex tasks requiring lots of mental capacity. Trying to maintain eye contact can impede your reasoning, which is why some (including myself) will look away when they’re thinking. Some even scowl. Take note of that so you don’t think the other person is being shifty and let the other person know that you’re thinking so he or she doesn’t think you’re shifty! This is especially important for my S and C personalities. Saying the right thing and using the right words is very important for you; therefore, looking away to think is common. 

And, please, do not look above or behind people as they’re talking! You’re telling them that they are not important enough to listen to. Newborns pay more attention to faces with direct eye gazing than people who are looking off into the distance like the chick in “Gone With the Wind” looking off in the distance for her beau to come back from war. 

What If I’m Not Good at Eye Contact? 

I have good and bad news for you. The cerebellum part of our brain controls our ability to hone in on an object. You know the phrase, “If looks could kill…”? Well, there’s more truth in there than we thought. Our need to hunt prey in the good ole days required us to be able to lock in and focus on an object. Today, this is mostly used in sports like, “Keep your eyes on the ball.” 

The reality is that focusing your gaze is voluntary and gets better with practice. Even those who suffer from neurological disorders are able to practice and improve because the brain is adaptable and changes. This means that you have to practice. And don’t think too much about eye contact because you’ll be more self-conscious and the creepy factor or the shifty factor will come in! 

Unfortunately, our social media culture has really impaired good ole fashioned eye contact because most of us have our faces in our phones. The lack of movement (keeping our eye on the ball) and eye-to-eye connections is causing the cerebellum to atrophy and impair its function. It’s important to make an effort to socialize with others and look them in the eye. There’s a lot of evidence out there, too, that face-to-face human connection is tied to happiness, well-being, and living longer. 

I don’t have any blog posts to further this training. However, the main thing I’d suggest is to practice, practice, practice. It’s just like I’ve said in past trainings that I had to learn to smile and it’s second nature now even with strangers. Same with eye contact. The more you do it, the less weird it is.

Sherri Wilson