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3 Keys to the Power and Meaning of Eye Contact

3. It turns up the volume on feelings in any interaction.

Key points

  • Humans are prewired to look into each other's eyes.
  • Properly employing patterns of gaze is essential for effective social interactions.
  • Eye contact turns up the volume on whatever feelings are inherent in an interaction.
TunedIn by Westend61/Shutterstock
Source: TunedIn by Westend61/Shutterstock

Few things make us more uncomfortable than being stared at by a stranger, and we have many ways of describing how eyes can signal threats. For instance, when provoked, we may give someone the hairy eyeball or the evil eye, and we may even flash them a look that could kill.

On the flip side, eye contact is just as strongly linked with romance and passion. We can easily get lost in someone’s eyes, especially if they were "making eyes at us" through flirtatious glances just before we locked eyeballs with them across a crowded room.

We Are Programmed to Respond to Eyes

The important social role played by eyes is not just a human thing; a gaze is an important signal of intention in almost all social species, transmitting unspoken messages of threat, dominance, submissiveness, courtship, and more, by the maintenance or aversion of gaze or by changes in eye color. Evolution has even equipped many species of moths, butterflies, and fish with eyelike stimuli called “eyespots” to mislead and intimidate predators.

Like many other animals, humans seem prewired to respond to eyes. Human infants are fascinated by eyes, preferring to attend to them over almost anything else, and eye contact is a vital part of the bonding process between mothers and infants. The strategic use of eye makeup by humans is a way of drawing attention to the eyes and enhancing their effectiveness.

Our gaze patterns are integral to regulating the level of intimacy we share with others and managing the niceties of turn-taking in conversations. Typically, we look a lot more at our interaction partners when we are listening than when we are speaking. We also use our looking behavior to signal when we wish to speak and when we wish to hand the conversation off to our partner. Being good with eye contact has been linked with positive outcomes, like speed dating success and making a good impression in job interviews, but we usually become uncomfortable if the amount of direct eye contact is too frequent or prolonged.

Gaze Is a Potent Social Signal

Eye contact, or “mutual gaze,” as it is often referred to by researchers who study nonverbal communication, can be disconcerting because it signals that the individual looking at us intends to engage in some sort of behavior that involves us. The intended behavior may be welcome and exciting or unwelcome and terrifying, but in either case, the other person’s gaze energizes us to make the appropriate response. In situations where we simply cannot understand what the other person intends, we wallow in discomfort and get creeped out.

And, there is ample evidence that gaze is, in fact, arousing.

Heart rate and other physiological indicators of heightened arousal levels increase during eye contact in humans as well as in other primates. Field studies in which people are stared at by strangers reveal that those under the gaze of others walk faster, fidget more, and even drive through intersections more quickly when they know that someone is looking at them. There is even evidence that eye contact can be a factor in provoking dog attacks.

So, unsurprisingly, high sensation seekers who enjoy elevated arousal levels are better at holding eye contact with strangers than low sensation seekers.

Eye Contact Increases the Intensity of Interactions

How does eye contact influence our emotions?

A useful analogy is to think of how we respond to music as its volume increases. If we are listening to music that we like, turning up the volume allows us to enjoy it even more. On the other hand, if our roommate or neighbor cranks up the volume on their favorite music, which you do not like, the experience becomes all the more unpleasant.

Eye contact "turns up the volume" on the emotions we are experiencing in the moment.

Consequently, we see high levels of eye contact in both intensely positive and intensely negative interactions. Contrast the feelings of passion and electricity fueled by prolonged, lingering eye contact between lovers with the intensity of the pre-fight “stare-down” between two boxers, or the in-your-face, high-eye-contact yelling matches that occur between baseball managers and umpires.

Experiments confirm that in a setting where an interviewer delivers praise, the interviewee's opinion of the person is further elevated the more the interviewer makes eye contact. When the interviewer is delivering negative feedback or insulting information, however, a lot of eye contact causes the interviewee to like the interviewer even less.

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