Eye Contact Can Be Overwhelming

Monday, April 29, 2019

Victoria Turner is the third place winner in the Synapse Storytelling Contest science writing category. Category judge, SF Chronicle science writer Erin Allday, said “Eye Contact Can Be Overwhelming was also a fascinating topic. I liked this one because it was relatable but also something we don’t often think about – so the topic felt familiar but also fresh. The writer made great use of real-world examples to help readers understand what the scientists are looking at and studying. The end was great!”

You can tell you’re starting to bore someone when their eyes slide off to the side. Before you know it, they’re staring out the window. Aligning pupils with someone might seem like an improbable way to signal to each other, but eye contact is one of the most important forms of nonverbal communication. We use eye contact every day to indicate interest. This might be what makes it easy to track a listener’s attention and protest when their interest wanes. Human eyes, with their large unpigmented white areas, turn out to be great for deducing where someone is looking.

But it takes two to tango. The person speaking also needs to maintain the gaze for eye contact to occur. A number of emotional states can cause us to avoid eye contact while speaking. Think of how well you can maintain eye contact and talk when you’re feeling shy, embarrassed, or guilty. Or shy, embarrassed, and guilty. In addition to emotion, deep thinking might also cause someone to drop their eyes. The reason may be to preserve mental bandwidth. A 2016 experiment conducted in Japan suggests that eye contact draws on the same mental resources used for complex tasks, so trying to maintain eye contact can actually impede your reasoning.

In the eye contact experiment, participants were instructed to keep staring at the eyes of a person shown on a screen while they performed a verbal task. To mimic eye contact, the person on the screen could be shown looking directly at the participant. Otherwise, the person on the screen was shown looking to the side. For each task, the participants needed to come up with a verb that could be used with a given noun. For example, if they heard the word milk, they might say drink.

Importantly, this task could become more difficult in two ways. First, a noun might work with many possible verbs (soup could be answered with eat, drink, cook). This would add the additional difficulty of selecting one answer. On the other hand, the task could ramp up in difficulty if noun was not commonly associated with a verb, as with sky. These two kinds of difficulty made it easier for the researchers to increase or decrease the challenge of the task.

In most of the tasks, eye contact did not seem to matter: whether participants had to make eye contact or not did not change how long it took to complete the task of a given difficulty. The one instance where eye contact became a problem was when the task was doubly difficult – these were the nouns like list which were difficult in two ways at once, both distantly linked to their verbs and being related to several verbs. Only in these difficult verbal tasks was there a notable drop in performance. Eye contact was a problem only when thinking hard.

This finding expands the idea that eye contact can deplete mental resources. Previous studies established this phenomenon using visual tasks like imagining a 3D landscape or naming the color of a word. In those cases, the interference with thinking could be explained simply because eye contact is a visual task, making it harder to combine with other visual tasks. This study showed that eye contact makes a nonvisual task harder, too.

Researchers still have much to understand about how culture affects people’s use of eye contact. While this study took place in Japanese-speaking adults, another experiment found no significant influence of eye contact on heart rate or eye contact time in Japanese and Finnish participants. Still, little is known about how your culture might impact eye contact and its effects on thinking. Studies to date have focused on cultural differences in perceiving eye contact as positive or negative or how to act during eye contact. So what do you gain from averting your eyes in a conversation, and what information do you lose?

Eye contact is something humans prefer from birth, but it can get in the way of our thoughts. Back in 1998, researchers theorized that averting the gaze aids thinking by avoiding potential distractions in front of us. Of course, if you look away, you also might miss your listener squinting in confusion or just rolling their eyes at you. While it remains to be seen which tasks are harmed by eye contact, or which might actually be improved, complex verbal tasks seem to be more difficult for people trying to maintain eye gaze. So the next time you’re locked eye-to-eye at a job interview, trying to make a good impression, take the time to avert your eyes while you think. You might find your best answers off to the side.