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How Eye Contact Can Drive or Derail Great Conversations

Engaging conversations are marked by pupillary synchrony that ebbs and flows.

Key points

  • Not making any eye contact during a conversation prevents people from feeling connected and getting on the same wavelength.
  • However, too much eye contact may interfere with conversational flow by making it harder for each person to generate new ideas.
  • A recent study found that making (and breaking) eye contact keeps conversations engaging as shared attention ebbs and flows.
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

New research from Dartmouth College suggests that the rise and fall of shared attention during interpersonal conversations is marked by making (and breaking) eye contact. These findings (Wohltjen & Wheatley, 2021) will appear in the September 14 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This study shows that when two people are conversing, their pupils synchronize periodically. Pupillary synchrony appears to peak during moments of shared attention. But, it can be hard to think of something original to say when you're gazing deeply into someone's eyes. The fresh ideas and individual contributions that keep each person engaged during a conversation don't necessarily happen when two people's eyes are locked.

Making Eye Contact Facilitates Shared Attention and Connectedness

"Conversation is the platform where minds meet to create and exchange ideas, hone norms, and forge bonds," the authors explain.

For this study, they asked, "How do minds coordinate with each other to build a shared narrative from independent contributions?" Their findings suggest that "eye contact may be a key mechanism for enabling the coordination of shared and independent modes of thought, allowing conversation to both cohere and evolve."

"Eye contact is really immersive and powerful," lead author Sophie Wohltjen, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, said in a September 2021 news release.

When two people are having a conversation, eye contact signals that shared attention is high—that they are in peak synchrony with one another.

As eye contact persists, that synchrony then decreases. We think this is also good because too much synchrony can make a conversation stale. An engaging conversation requires, at times, being on the same page and, at times, saying something new. Eye contact seems to be one way we create a shared space while also allowing space for new ideas.

Breaking Eye Contact Facilitates Independent Modes of Thought and Fresh Ideas

"In the past, it has been assumed that eye contact creates synchrony, but our findings suggest that it's not that simple," senior author Thalia Wheatley, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and principal investigator at their Social Systems Laboratory, said in the news release. "We make eye contact when we are already in sync, and, if anything, eye contact seems to then help break that synchrony. Eye contact may usefully disrupt synchrony momentarily in order to allow for a new thought or idea."

 Figure by Sophie Wohltjen
Cartoon of how a single instance of eye contact coincides with pupillary synchrony. Prior to eye contact, pupillary synchrony increases until it peaks at eye contact onset. As eye contact is maintained, synchrony declines until its trough when eye contact is broken.
Source: Figure by Sophie Wohltjen

For this study, Wohltjen and Wheatley had pairs of college students come into the lab and have a 10-minute conversation while wearing eye-tracking glasses and sitting face-to-face across from one another. People were free to discuss anything that popped into their minds during this natural conversation.

After their one-on-one dialogue ended, each participant watched a video of the interaction and made real-time comments about how engaged he or she felt at various points in the conversation. Then, the researchers measured how pupillary synchronicity and moments of eye contact correlated with shared attention and engagement during different phases of the conversation.

According to the authors,

[Our] results showed that people make eye contact as pupillary synchrony is at its peak. Pupillary synchrony then immediately decreases, only recovering again once eye contact is broken. The data also demonstrated a correlation between instances of eye contact and higher levels of engagement during the conversation.

Making and Breaking Eye Contact Keeps Conversations Fresh and Engaging

The latest (2021) research suggests that eye contact marks when shared attention is high. These findings also indicate that once eye contact commences and pupillary synchrony peaks, it's hard for each conversationalist to generate new ideas or thoughts until eye contact breaks. "Furthermore, we speculate that eye contact may play a corrective role in disrupting shared attention (reducing synchrony) as needed to facilitate independent contributions to conversation," the authors note.

"Conversation is a creative act in which people build a shared story from independent voices," Wheatley concludes. "Moments of eye contact seem to signal when we have achieved shared understanding and need to contribute our independent voice."

Figure by Sophie Wohltjen via EurekAlert

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LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Sophie Wohltjen and Thalia Wheatley. "Eye Contact Marks the Rise and Fall of Shared attention in Conversation." PNAS (First published: September 14, 2021) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2106645118