“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:
(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.)
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:
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?