“Trivial, irrelevant, and essentially of no scientific interest."

This was the initial reaction to my Ph.D. supervisor’s most quoted paper, published almost exactly 50 years ago. The topic was eye gaze—when, where, and why people look at each other, particularly in the eye. But since then it has attracted a great deal of interest.

The eyes are the messengers of the soul. We “keep our eyes open (or peeled),” we “see eye-to-eye” with some but “turn a blind eye” to others. Some people are “more than meets the eye,” some are “the apple of your eye,” and some “a sight for sore eyes.” You may prefer “not to bat an eye” but be sure that no one can “pull the wool over your eyes.”

We can accurately read emotions just from eye slits, which is why talking to people wearing dark glasses, or worse, mirrored lenses can be so problematic.

Where, when, and how we look at others are all part of the phenomenon of eye gaze, one of our most important and primitive means of communication. Gaze plays a crucial role in conversation. Looking at another person is a way of getting feedback on particular points. It is also used as a synchronizing signal. People tend to look up at the end of utterances: This gives them feedback and hands over the conversational baton. People also look up more at the end of grammatical breaks, but look away when hesitating, talking non-fluently, or thinking. There is often mutual eye contact during attempted interruptions, laughing, and when answering short questions.

Gaze functions to encourage and persuade in all human beings. For instance we know that:

  • A gazer may invite interaction by staring at another person on the other side of a room. The target's studied return of the gaze is generally interpreted as acceptance of the invitation, while averting the eyes is a rejection of the request. We deal with embarrassment by looking away; it discourages further conversation. We ignore and punish behavior simply by gaze aversion.

    (At school we used have fun shaping teacher behavior. The game went like this: If the teacher was a perambulator who wandered around the room, every time he or she moved to the left side of the room you looked up, smiled, and maintained eye-contact. Every time he or she moved to the right, you looked away. Then you measured how much time the teacher spent on either side of the room. We learned that you can powerfully influence others by simply maintaining or avoiding eye contact.)

  • There is more mutual eye contact between friends than others, and a looker's frank gaze is widely interpreted as positive regard. Lovers really do gaze more into each other’s eyes.
  • People who seek eye contact while speaking are regarded not only as exceptionally well-disposed by their targets, but also as more believable and earnest. Politicians "sweep" the room with their gaze. Salesmen know to look at each member of their audience.
  • If the usual short, intermittent gazes of a conversation are replaced by gazes of longer duration, the target interprets this as meaning that the communication is less important than the personal relationship between two people.

The amount and type of eye gaze imparts a great deal of information. Pupil dilation, blink rates, direction of gaze, widening of the eyes all send very clear messages.

The causes and consequence of pupil dilation are particularly interesting, because it is one of those communication behaviors of which neither party is much aware during the communication. Consider this: People are shown two identical photographs of a woman with the only difference being that in one of them her pupil size is detectably (and artificially) enlarged to be double the normal, natural size. When asked to rate which is more attractive, 60-80% will nominate the photo with the falsely dilated pupils. However, if you ask them to point out how the photographs differ, very few will be able to identify pupil dilation (or its manipulation); instead, they point to skin, hair texture, lips, or facial shape.

Pupils dilate for various reasons: In bright light, they contract; in dim light, they expand. But they also dilate when strong emotions like sexual excitement or rage are experienced. The latter visibly manifests in cats or dogs that are about to fight. What's more, people respond to others who appear to be sexually attracted to them. Women used to put belladonna plant extract (which literally translates as beautiful woman) in their eyes to cause pupil dilation (and, consequently as it turned out, vision problems). This could be a painful and dangerous process but was considered worth it to attract men. Thus a man, unaware of why he was attracted to the woman, may have responded to the dilated pupils.

This is an example of power of visible signals—not one that may be the most relevant or applicable in the workplace, however.

Consider 10 factors that determine our amount of eye gaze:

  1. Distance. In elevators, we turn to face the door because we stand too close and reducing eye gaze helps reduce the discomfort of having our body zones invaded. Note how conversation before, during, and after the ride changes. As soon as the distance between people drops below 6 feet, their eye contact patterns decrease.
  2. Topic of conversation. It's no accident that Catholic confessionals and psychiatric couches are arranged to attempt to reduce the amount of contact between the priest or therapist and the confessor or patient. When people are talking about shameful and embarrassing things or looking inward, it is better that they sense but do not actually see others, and that those listening do not (cannot) stare at them. Similarly, people often find that they can have good conversations while walking or doing a co-operative activity, such as washing up, because they are close to, but not looking at, their companions. Intimate talk can be inhibited by eye contact.
  3. Conversation task. Doctors look more at patients when talking about emotional rather than physical symptoms or conditions. People in general look more at co-operators than competitors. Persuaders look more when trying to influence.
  4. Attention. Hitchhikers, charity-tin shakers, and others maximize eye contact to increase attention. People look at each other about 75% of the time when talking but only 40% of the time when listening. One looks to get, and keep, the attention of others.
  5. Interpersonal relationships. People look at those they like more than those they do not—and our pupils dilate more when we are looking at those we like. Gaze also signals dominance: More powerful people are looked at more (partly because they tend to look more and speak less). Threat is also indicated by gaze: Direct gaze signals threat, while cutting off or averting your gaze is likely to signal appeasement.
  6. Co-operation. The extent to which people are willing to co-operate rather than compete is often communicated by gaze patterns. The amount and type of gaze is important: The common meaning of a high level of gaze is that the gazer is interested and attentive. However, combined with certain expressions it could as easily indicate threat.
  7. Personality. Extroverts look more often, and for longer, at their interlocutors than introverts do. The confident, the bright, and the socially dominant look more, while it is the opposite for the socially anxious. Females look more at those they are talking to than males do.
  8. Physical appearance. People look less at the disabled and less attractive individuals—and vice versa.
  9. Mental illness. Many psychopathologies are associated with reduced and/or “odd” gaze patterns, especially autism and paranoia. Schizophrenics and depressed people tend to avert eye gaze.
  10. Ethnicity. Contact cultures like those in the near East look at each other more than non-contact cultures like those in Europe.

People disguise eye contact by wearing dark glasses or sunshades. Blind people do so to indicate their blindness but also because they cannot look people in the eye or always face others directly. Security guards wear dark glasses so that possible suspects cannot see the direction in which they are looking. Traffic police wear reflecting, mirrored glasses to help reduce the possibility of an argument; irate or nervous drivers can be put off a confrontation if they not only cannot see the eyes of the policeman but are also forced to see their own eyes. They experience objective self-awareness, seeing themselves as objects and not seeing those they are engaging with.

Most of us know people who close their eyes while speaking. This may indicate that a person is bored or feels superior. They deny both speaker and listener the opportunity to receive and give feedback. (Shy, introverted people also tend to have less open eye gaze.)

The way rooms are furnished can maximize or minimize eye contact, as with psychiatric couches and confession rooms described above. But the position of chairs, desks, and other office paraphernalia might also be a clue to a host’s preferred mode of communication and personality. It can also dictate how close you sit to one another, how easy it is to look at each other in the eye, and the angle of contact, or orientation: It can be very uncomfortable having to sit face-to-face at a very close distance, or particularly relaxing.

So, our gaze: Trivial non-verbal behavior or an important way we communicate consciously and unconsciously with each other?

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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